Sarah Stierch. Photo via fabola/Flickr
When Wikipedia launched in 2001, it was a first-of-its-kind experiment in collaboration. Rather than relying on a narrow group of experts as authors and editors, Wikipedia would be the first encyclopedia edited by anyone interested in participating. In doing so, the hope was to form the widest possible compendium of knowledge written from a range of worldviews.
Twelve years later, one critical worldview is still missing from the site. Despite accounting for half the world's population, women comprise just 9 percent of all Wikipedia editors.
This troubling gender gap has garnered a lot of attention from researchers, who say it's the byproduct of established gender biases in society, the male-oriented aesthetics of technology, and Wikipedia's sometimes-abrasive culture. These factors have all coalesced to reinstitute a familiar pattern.
"The average Wikipedia editor is a well-educated white male. Well-educated white males have been writing history and the story of the world since ancient times," says Sarah Stierch, a long-time Wikipedia editor and research fellow with the Wikimedia Foundation.
Stierch has been at the forefront of the Wikimedia foundation's efforts to broaden participation among women. But the first step in solving the problem is understanding it. Much of Stierch's research has focused on identifying what kind of women already use Wikipedia and why more aren't already editing.
Though she tries not to generalize, Stierch told the Daily Dot much of Wikipedia's gender gap relates to its origins in older, male-dominated tech communities.
"If people assume I'm male, I don't tell them otherwise"
"It's aesthetically very masculine in its design," Stierch told us. "Its community, like so much of the early Internet, has been male dominated, and I think when a lot of people—men or women—look at Wikipedia these days, they see it as a source for information but have little interest or excitement in contributing to it."
As a counterpoint, Stierch offered up the fact that women tend to dominate other online communities, making up the majority of social media users. She said it's a matter of choice about how to spend one's time online, at that fewer women are drawn to the cold, technical, and argumentative environment of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia tends to attract a certain personality type, male or female. Stierch noted that the average Wikipedia editor is scholarly and detail-oriented, and the fact that fewer women are involved with the site may be a reflection of the traditional gender gap in higher education.
That trend, too, is changing. Many of the more prominent female editors on the site tend to be professors, students, or retired educators.
But it's not just a lack of interest. Once on the site, women can face a set of challenges that are unique to Wikipedia's laissez-faire culture.
In a recent study titled "Free Culture and the Gender Gap," Joseph Reagle, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, argues that women's decisions not to participate in Wikipedia may be less of a choice than it initially seems.
"The ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice," Reagle told the Daily Dot. "That is, 'if there are no women in our project, it must simply be their choice.' Women may have made a choice, but it was not based on whether they find the project interesting or have a contribution to make, but by the 'brogrammer' locker-room type of environment."
This "brogramming" culture frequently informs the interactions female editors have while working on the site. According to the Women and Wikimedia Survey of 2011, a third of all female respondents have in some way been "assaulted, attacked, or treated poorly by colleagues on projects." As a result, some female users intentionally disguise their gender on the site.
"I do not reveal much personal information on Wikipedia, so it's an non-issue," wrote one survey respondent. "If people assume I'm a male, I don't tell them otherwise; if people assume I'm female, I don't affirm that. … I like being judged on my work alone."'
"Being 'out' has been more empowering than ever trying to hide"
Stierch admitted that the practice of remaining gender-anonymous on Wikipedia is fairly common, though she insists it's a minority of female users. She argues that the best tactic for creating a more inclusive Wikipedia community is for more women to "come out" as women on the site.
Although she never tried to hide her gender, Stierch, who used to edit under a pseudonymous username, now uses her real name. She said being forthright about her identity online has raised the level of respect she receives.
“For me, being 'out' has been more empowering than ever trying to hide anything," Stierch told us.
Aware of the problem, the Wikimedia Foundation has been working actively to recruit and retain more female editors. The Wikipedia Teahouse project, designed as a more user-friendly gateway and mentoring space for new editors in general, boasts a nearly 30 percent female participation rate, much higher than the 9 percent general female population of Wikipedia at large. The Teahouse was designed as a way to help stave the larger drop-off of Wikipedia editors in recent years.
"Reducing the gender gap on Wikipedia has been one of the priorities for the Wikimedia Foundation for the past couple of years, since we participated in a study that showed that about one in 10 Wikipedia editors are female," said Matthew Roth, a spokesperson with the Wikimedia Foundation.
And solving the gap is important not just for women, but for the site as a whole. Reagle is the first to admit that a lack of diversity hurts Wikipedia. Not only does a male-dominated culture lead to more biased articles, but also, research has shown that collective intelligence of a group goes up with increased social sensitivity, conversational turn-taking, and female participation.
"I think most everyone agrees that Wikipedia is best when people with diverse interests and skills collaborate together in good faith," he said.