Wikipedia Is Male-Dominated. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Sexist.

Why the New York Times and feminists should stop hyperventilating about the Web site’s gender gap.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller announced last week at the National Press Club that news from Egypt was crowding from his paper’s front page anything that didn’t have an urgent claim on readers’ attention. So what made the cut that day, in addition to the dispatches from Cairo and Jerusalem? An article on gender imbalance among Wikipedia contributors. Barely 13 percent of the anonymous, volunteer contributors to the free online encyclopedia are female, according to a study by the Wikimedia Foundation.

The gender imbalance among Wikipedia contributors is not even news. The Wikimedia study came out in August 2009 and was covered by the Wall Street Journal at that time. In the 17 months (which the Times rounds down to “about a year”) that this report has been searing the Times’ consciousness, the paper has come up with exactly zero new facts to explain the contributor imbalance. Instead, the paper recycles Women’s Studies bromides about a female-hostile society, providing a striking display of contemporary feminism’s intellectual decadence.

For anyone who is actually interested in finding out whether sexism currently shapes participation in public discourse, Wikipedia is a dream come true. Feminists have been complaining for years about the unequal representation of females on op-ed pages and in influential book reviews, magazines, and journals. In 2005, for example, political commentator Susan Estrich prominently accused editor Michael Kinsley of excluding female writers from the Los AngelesTimes’ opinion section. Estrich’s only evidence for Kinsley’s alleged animosity to women was the lack of gender proportionality among Times contributors, which a posse of Estrich’s female students at the University of Southern California law school had been tracking. A New York outfit called the OpEd Project performs the same bean-counting more widely, running a regularly updated gender breakdown of opinion pieces at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and Salon. And last week, Meghan O’Rourke (writing in Slate) and Robin Romm (writing for the Double X blog) reported the results of yet another such tally, this one by the women’s literary group VIDA, which counted bylines at 14 influential magazines, book reviews, and literary journals over the course of 2010. Pointing to VIDA’s findings—namely, that male bylines outnumbered female ones—O’Rourke concluded that “decisions about who and what gets published” must not be “the result of merit alone.” Romm, meanwhile, used the occasion to observe portentously that “the gatekeepers of literary culture—at least at magazines—are still primarily male.” Neither felt the need to determine the underlying ratio of male to female writers before decrying the byline imbalance.

The idea that these gender imbalances represent gatekeeper bias was demonstrably false even before the Wiki reality check. Any female writer or speaker who is not painfully aware of the many instances in which she has been included in a forum because of her sex is self-deluded. Far from being indifferent—much less hostile—to female representation, every remotely mainstream organization today assiduously seeks to include as many females as possible in its ranks. Nevertheless, the idea that someone or something is inhibiting women’s intellectual and political involvement remains robust, which is where Wikipedia comes in. Famously, Wikipedia has no gatekeepers. Anyone can write or edit an entry, either anonymously or under his or her own name. All that is required is a zeal for knowledge and accuracy. (The desire to share knowledge and the drive to correct errors are the top motivations of contributors, the Wikimedia study found.) Wikipedia provides a naturally occurring control group to test the theory that females’ low participation rate in various public forums is the result of exclusion.

It turns out that without gatekeepers, women’s representation drops—which makes sense, given the constant quota-izing by gatekeepers on women’s behalf. The barely 13-percent-female participation to Wikipedia is less than the 15-percent-female participation in “public thought-leadership forums” which the OpEd Project has calculated (and which the Times cites), let alone the 27-percent-female participation rate VIDA calculated at TheNew Yorker. Most significantly, even Wiki topics which the Times acknowledges as female-centric, such as the TV show Sex and the City, have meager entries compared to the voluminous, fact-filled essays on allegedly masculine topics such as The Sopranos. The difference in output starts early. The Wiki entry on friendship bracelets, favored by teenage girls, is skimpy compared to those for baseball cards or toy soldiers, reports the Times (though boy hobbies may well be written up by hobby-obsessed men).

The Times’ next move reveals the shameless legerdemain with which contemporary feminists and their allies preserve the conceit of a sexist society. Rather than using barrier-free Wikipedia as the benchmark for measuring discrimination in the by-invitation-only world, the Times uses the invitation-only-world as the benchmark for Wikipedia. Since we already know that the low female participation rate in gatekeepered forums is the result of bias, the low female participation rate in Wikipedia must also be the result of bias. Nowhere does the article contemplate the possibility that Wikipedia may instead reveal different innate predilections for what the Times condescendingly calls “an obsessive fact-loving realm.”

Given the challenge of identifying barriers to women in a forum open to all, it is no surprise that the people quoted in the article speak in gibberish. The Times introduces the first of its experts thus:

Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd, says Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. This includes an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.

No examples of such “discouragement” are provided, so let us move on to Reagle’s first quote: “It is ironic,” he tells the Times, “because I like these things — freedom, openness, egalitarian ideas — but I think to some extent they are compounding and hiding problems you might find in the real world.” This statement is nonsensical: How do “freedom, openness, and egalitarian ideas” both “compound and hide problems”? Does it now turn out that freedom and openness stand as barriers to the feminists’ sought-after equality of results between women and men?

Let’s generously interpret Reagle’s remark to mean that the ball-and-chain of sexist repression that women carry around in the “real world” continues to shackle them when it comes to Wikipedia. But Reagle’s attempt to clarify how this might work is even more incomprehensible. The Times quotes him as follows: “Adopting openness means being ‘open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,’ [Reagle] said, ‘so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem.’ ” Again, it’s hard to know what he means. Glossing generously once more, one might surmise that Reagle is saying that becoming a Wikipedia contributor means having to interact with “very difficult … people, even misogynists.” But the implication—that “misogynists” are disproportionately represented among Wiki contributors—is not backed up by a shred of evidence.

Misogyny, for Reagle as for most feminists, is apparently an a priori premise, not something that you ever have to demonstrate. He gives no hint at what common element in Wikipedia’s 17 million articles attracts these alleged misogynists. Furthermore, how would a Wikipedia misogynist even know that he was dealing with a female, since most contributors are anonymous? Or are misogynists so clever that they can spot female prose without identification? (The lurking-misogynists hypothesis might at least explain why Wikipedia’s Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo entries are, as the Times notes, so skimpy: Misogynists must be homing in on likely female-generated text and swatting it down.)

Perhaps Reagle simply means that women have a hard time dealing with “very difficult, high conflict people.” If that is so, it’s hard to see how interpersonal difficulty is a result of gender bias. Lots of men have a hard time dealing with such people too; I am not aware that such difficulty becomes a “problem” for society to solve. If you don’t like to debate, perhaps you should avoid the debate club rather than calling for its reconstitution into a mutual-agreement society.

The rest of the Times’ experts expound an identical line: The same unspecified barriers that supposedly prevent women from expressing themselves elsewhere also prevent women from contributing to Wikipedia. The article quotes Jane Margolis, co-author of a book on sexism in computer science and senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA: “In almost every space, who are the authorities, the politicians, writers for op-ed pages?” she asks darkly. To restate the obvious, there are no “authorities” on Wikipedia; it is open to all. The issue before us, then, is whether Wikipedia’s low female participation rate proves that the low female participation rate in other forums is a result of choice, rather than barriers.

The most straightforward explanation for the differing rates of participation in Wikipedia—and the one that conforms to everyday experience—is that, on average, males and females have different interests and preferred ways of spending their free time. These differences include, on average, the orientation toward highly “fact-based realms” as well as the drive to acquire and expand abstract knowledge. (Needless to say, thousands of female physicists, chemists, and historians are pioneers in their fields, pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge.) I know no females who can provide off the top of their head three decades of data on swing voters in Pennsylvania’s 63rd district (though some are undoubtedly out there), but I know several males who live for such arcana. While there are some females who track baseball statistics with as much zeal as males, they are in the minority. Subjects of disproportionately female interest, such as celebrity fashion flubs, have not generated the same bank of shared knowledge as sports records. Wikipedia articles will, of course, reflect this disparity.

Wikipedia’s gender imbalance is a non-problem in search of a misguided solution. It would do a lot less damage to equality to acknowledge that men and women are not identical in their interests than to suggest that “freedom, openness, [and] egalitarian ideas” are inconsistent with female self-realization. Besides, the vast majority of men don’t contribute to Wikipedia, just as the vast majority of women don’t. The site has only 91,000 active contributors; that leaves a lot of men whose “voices” are also not being heard.

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