Why Men Outnumber Women On Wikipedia

Form this article:

Wikipedia is “like a sausage”, its founder, Jimmy Wales, told a reporter in 2004. “You might like the taste of it, but you don’t necessarily want to see how it’s made.” Back then, the free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit was an exciting new, scrappy, collaborative utopia. Now it is the most influential source of information in the world. Wikipedia is often the first search result when we google something, our first destination when we want to understand something, and the place where academics, journalists and politicians first brief themselves, even though they might pretend it is not.

Dismissed as dangerously unreliable in its early days, Wikipedia has become more rigorous over the years, with references essential to the survival of any article. We trust the website much more: amid the early panic of the ebola outbreak, the Wikipedia page for the virus was seen as an authoritative, reliable source, receiving as many hits as the World Health Organisation’s online ebola fact sheet. Wikipedia has become one of the most recognised brands in the world and for many people it is the portal to knowledge in the 21st century.

Yet when it comes to how it is made, Wikipedia is a colossal failure. Only a tiny proportion of users now edit articles and the overwhelming majority of those editors are male. The most recent survey by the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity that supports but does not control Wikipedia, found that 91 per cent of the editors are men. More optimistic surveys have put the figure at 84 per cent – but still, Wikipedia has a huge diversity problem. Instead of being the egalitarian “sum of all human knowledge”, as Wales had originally hoped, the English version of Wikipedia is mostly the sum of male knowledge.

So Wikipedia is now a great source of information. But it is a colossal failure because… overwhelming majority of its editors are male! Did I read it correctly? Wikipedia’s content is created by voluntary collaborators, which means everyone – women as well as men – are free to contribute to the encyclopedia. If women don’t volunteer, how is that a failure of the system which has accomplished what it was supposed to?

Wikipedia knows this is a problem – there is even a Wikipedia article on the subject (“Gender bias on Wikipedia”) – but no one knows what to do about it.

Wikipedia is amazing, but it is mostly created by men, and that is problematic! Does the fact that the amazing resource is created mostly by men negate its utility to the humankind? Obviously not. Then how is it a problem? Apparently some people – including Sue Gardner, a former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and the founder Jimmy Wales – think it is a problem that needs solving.

Elsewhere on the internet, women outnumber men on some of the other most visited sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and in many online games. Why do they feel less welcome on Wikipedia? “I don’t want to get into a fight on the internet. Ugh,” says Zara Rahman, 26, originally from Man­chester and now living in Berlin. She trains journalists to use data and technology, so you might expect her to feel at home on Wikipedia. But her experience there left her “really annoyed. Just exhausted.”

The frustration stemmed from her experience editing the online entry for Hedy Lamarr, a 1940s Hollywood star and long-neglected inventor. Lamarr devised a crucial technique that paved the way for wireless communication, but her scientific achievements had barely a mention on her Wikipedia page when Rahman first looked her up. She edited the article to reflect the significance of Lamarr’s invention, referencing it in the first paragraph, but her changes were quickly reversed by another editor, on the grounds that Lamarr’s acting career was more noted by historical sources than her invention. Then someone added a line to the opening paragraph about how a film director had once commented on Lamarr’s “strikingly dark exotic looks”. The editing community allowed that to stay in.

It is dumb to draw parallel between Twitter and Facebook, and Wikipedia. But of course, Zara Rahman is a woman. So I can understand how she doesn’t get it that on Twitter and Facebook she can write whatever she wants to, but Wikipedia is not her personal social networking profile. It is a collaborative resource of information, which by definition means that what one writes will be scrutinized by experienced people before it becomes information that the world can rely on. If that process causes her frustration, one must understand that 91 percent male editors of Wikipedia have no way to bypass the process. Her explanation, therefore, is bogus.

The real reason why men outnumber women on Wikipedia is the same reason why men write more product reviews on shopping websites like Amazon.com. Men outnumber women in most areas where value-creation through collaboration with large groups of people is needed. Be it film-reviews on IMDb, discussions on various internet forums, or Wikipedia. Women too are found collaborating, but notice that most of them would do so either on websites which serve feminist agenda or those talking about women-specific things. Women rarely have the motivation to collaborate about general topics and issues which is essentially how value for the society is created. By doing the very same things men have built the society and have been continuing to further its development.

Here is what Roy Baumeister [1] has to say:

The large institutions have almost all been created by men. The notion that women were deliberately oppressed by being excluded from these institutions requires an artful, selective, and motivated way of looking at them. Even today, the women’s movement has been a story of women demanding places and preferential treatment in the organizational and institutional structures that men create, rather than women creating organizations and institutions themselves. Almost certainly, this reflects one of the basic motivational differences between men and women, which is that female sociality is focused heavily on one-to-one relationships, whereas male sociality extends to larger groups networks of shallower relationships (e.g., Baumeister and Sommer 1997; Baumeister 2010). Crudely put, women hardly ever create large organizations or social systems. That fact can explain most of the history of gender relations, in which the gender near equality of prehistorical societies was gradually replaced by progressive inequality—not because men banded together to oppress women, but because cultural progress arose from the men’s sphere with its large networks of shallow relationships, while the women’s sphere remained stagnant because its social structure emphasized intense one-to-one relationships to the near exclusion of all else (see Baumeister 2010). All over the world and throughout history (and prehistory), the contribution of large groups of women to cultural progress has been vanishingly small.

Motivational differences. That is what is it.


1. Sexual Economics, Culture, Men, and Modern Sexual Trends by Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs


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