Monday, January 31, 2011

Wikipedia Perpetuates Female Victimhood or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Gender Gap

Today I was troubled by this NY Times article that discusses the gender gap in Wikipedia submissions:

It begins with impressive stats – over 3.5 million English articles and articles in over 250 languages, then awkwardly railroads these achievements by citing that “surveys suggest less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.”

And there are no Eskimo basketball players, so what? Well, it’s apparently a big deal. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the site, set an arbitrary goal to increase the share of female contributions to 25 percent by 2015.

Why? Well, Cohen quickly rejects the obvious theory that it’s a matter of political correctness. He writes,

Her effort is not diversity for diversity’s sake, she says. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be,” Ms. Gardner said in an interview on Thursday. “The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know.”

“Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” she said. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”

Okay, so it sounds good – everyone gets a shot at bringing forth their information. But this assumes that more women want to be involved, if they do, why haven’t they gotten involved? Apologists can’t claim restrictions – men as well as women have access to the Internet (excluding of course countries that lack the technology or have used their tyrannical governments to restrict access.)

Is it a matter of some gender-based "performance anxiety?” Wikipedia doesn’t list any bylines, so even if some women might be deterred by the thought that, “Well, some people won’t care what I have to say because of my gender” – it doesn’t come into play on a Wikipedia page.

Cohen brings up a few ridiculous examples:

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs. And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on “Sex and the City” includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on “The Sopranos” includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode.

Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons”?

If the goal here is some semblance of equality – why is Cohen, the writer who is supposed to bring this “important” issue to the forefront of social debate, using such obvious gender stereotypes? Does he really believe that only women have the ability (and interest) to discuss friendship bracelets and designer shoes at length? Are there not women who watch The Sopranos and men who watch Sex and the City?

What are these examples supposed to prove? If anything, they prove that stereotypically feminine subjects are underrepresented, so let’s recruit lots and lots of women to discuss shoes and TV! It’s like a Cathy comic strip come to life, and put online. Cohen, how long is the entry on chocolate?

Cohen then discusses how Ms. Gardner got teary eyed when one of her favorite authors had less written about her than a videogame character (will Gardner restrict the recruiting to women who will discuss women writers and other "women" subjects and not allow women who want to discuss violent video games? So much for equality.)

Cohen writes,

“According to the OpEd Project, an organization based in New York that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to “public thought-leadership forums,” a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages. Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.”

Women are not a minority – but if they do indeed represent a minority in terms of voice whose fault is it? There are women-based organizations, and plenty of female academics who have made names for themselves, but not every woman is interested in being political, to force them by scaring them with statistics and making them feel underrepresented isn’t going to empower anyone, except maybe those capitalizing on the victimhood.

Speaking of victimhood, (or feigned victimhood):

She said her group had persuaded women to express themselves by urging them to shift the focus “away from oneself — ‘do I know enough, am I bragging?’ — and turn the focus outward, thinking about the value of your knowledge.”

Yes, because we all go on to Wikipedia and say, "Ah, what a pompous jerk, how does this asshole know so much about Cicero?"

Ms. Gardner said that for now she was trying to use subtle persuasion and outreach through her foundation to welcome all newcomers to Wikipedia, rather than advocate for women-specific remedies like recruitment or quotas.

What happened to the increase of 25 percent? (Don't make me pull a "women are notoriously bad at math" joke...)

“Gender is a huge hot-button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it,” she said. “I am not interested in triggering those strong feelings.”

Sure you aren’t.


  1. Stick a fork in Cohen she's done.

    Very nice ownage. This epic destruction deserves a Wikipedia entry. ;)