The XX Factor

Why Do Women Contribute to Yelp and Not Wikipedia?

Yesterday on Slate , Heather Mac Donald argued , in response to a New York Times article detailing the majority male makeup of Wikipedia contributors , that women have no one to blame but themselves if they aren’t editing the site with the same zeal as men. Up to a point, she’s right, I think-the site’s structure does indeed remove “gatekeeper bias”; if you want to and are dedicated and knowledgeable enough, you can contribute as much as you want. There is no one stopping women from becoming fact-obsessives. We just don’t seem to tend that way, on the whole, and that’s what’s required for editing Wikipedia.

Yet Mac Donald too easily glosses over the question of whether this matters, and if/how the editing structure of Wikipedia could be altered to correct the gender imbalance even slightly. I spoke recently to Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, a professor at Harvard Business School who’s researched gender and social platforms , about the Times article. When I quoted the stat that not even 15 percent of Wikipedia contributors are women, he interrupted to ask whether the number included women who concealed their gender on the site: In his research, he’s noticed that women editors will sometimes either falsely identify as male or purposefully refrain from stating their gender (he says the editing process isn’t as anonymous as MacDonald implies). He also hypothesizes that there’s higher rate of attrition among women editors than men in his sample, though both genders frequently cite the same reason for leaving: It’s incredibly frustrating to have your work simply wiped out by an editor who disagrees, without any sort of consultation. A more collaborative editing process might help fix the gender imbalance, and also attract more men who don’t share the particular, combative personality that the current one rewards.

There’s evidence on another social platform, by the way, that women aren’t shy about sharing their opinions. Yelp is dominated by women, and while rating the pad thai at a restaurant is a different impulse than cataloguing, say, major Civil War battles, Piskorski says site-sponsored, offline meetups among Yelp users and the fact that contributions aren’t unilaterally wiped out or overridden are crucial to Yelp’s female makeup. No, you don’t want a series of opinions on what various people think are the most important Civil War battles-that’s not remotely useful; you need facts-but maybe fostering a community that spills over into the real world might help.

And as to whether it matters that the site is edited by a very distinct group of mostly men: Piskorski says one of his graduate students has done research that shows there is, functionally, zero correlation between the frequency with which people edited a page and the frequency with which it’s read. In many cases, pages that people navigate to often are disproportionately (and disappointingly) spare. So setting aside any feminist questions of gatekeeping bias, it’s worth thinking about specific ways to make Wikipedia editing more universally appealing without losing accuracy-and the goal of making it more female-friendly seems like one smart way to frame that task.