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Closing Wikipedia’s Gender Gap

A new program that teaches librarians how to edit Wikipedia might broaden the site’s user diversity.

By Rick Paulas


Wikipedia homepage. (Photo: Wikipedia)

While the proliferation of the Internet has dramatically disrupted the establishment — it’s not hard to draw a line from the rise of social media to the proliferation of Black Lives Matter, the campaign of Bernie Sanders, and the lobby for transgender rights — there’s one distinct area where those varied voices are lacking, and it happens to be a website of record: Wikipedia.

In 2011, the New York Times examined the site’s gender split and found that only 13 percent of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors were women. (Another study cited by Wikipedia itself found that only 8.5 percent were.) How does this disproportionate gender split affect the website?

Articles about women were much more likely to include gender-specific words, in addition to references to being “married” or having a “family.”

In 2015, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined six versions of Wikipedia in different languages to examine how men and women are represented in the site’s articles. While findings suggested Wikipedia does a good job at representing men and women on the front page without showing a bias, the writing on the site showed a more insidious bias when it came to word usage. Articles about women were much more likely to include gender-specific words, in addition to references to being “married” or having a “family.”

Wikipedia’s editors are also very predominantly white. So much so that Wikimedia, the non-profit foundation behind Wikipedia, has held yearly Black History Month hack-a-thons in an attempt to close the gap. As James Hare, president of Wikimedia D.C., told the New York Times in 2015:

The stereotype of a Wikipedia editor is a 30-year-old white man, and so most of the articles written are about stuff that interests 30-year-old white men. So a lot of black history is left out.

If Wikipedia is meant to be “the sum of the world’s knowledge,” it should be written and edited by a diverse set of voices. The quickest path toward that is the most obvious: finding more women and minority Wikipedia editors.

For 12 years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has held its annual News Challenge, awarding grants to innovative ideas that transform the delivery and collection of news and information. This year, with a focus on public libraries, they awarded one of their grants to the project called “Amplify Libraries and Communities Through Wikipedia.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about for probably five years,” says Merrilee Proffitt, one of the project leads. “I’ve been thinking about the openness of Wikipedia and how libraries can insert themselves into that puzzle. The more I came to learn about Wikipedia, the more I realized the ethos and the ethics of the community is very similar to that of the librarian community.”

For instance, the two communities are dedicated to the open access of free information and the expansion of knowledge. And if anyone’s ever tried to get something to stick for a while on Wikipedia over the past five years, you know how difficult it is to pass its stringent sourcing requirement, the same strict standard in libraries.

“In libraries, credible information is what they seek to provide, and they work with patrons and community members to help them discern between credible and not credible information,” says Sharon Streams, the other project lead. “In the early days, I think librarians were concerned that Wikipedia was spreading unreferenced information. But it’s changed and evolved so much. It has become more and more central to people’s lives, so now we actually need to be more active in making sure this is credible information.”

That’s where the grant comes in. Funded by the $250,000 from the Knight Foundation, it will launch a program that connects library resources to Wikipedia. This will be a dual-sided process: working with current Wikipedians to allow them better access to library archives, and teaching librarians the submissions process and how to work within the somewhat intimidating community.

“The more I came to learn about Wikipedia, the more I realized the ethos and the ethics of the community is very similar to that of the librarian community.”

“It can be a challenging environment,” Proffitt says. “The thing that someone said to me that resonates is, ‘Wikipedians are very nice in person, but can be mean online.’ You don’t get subtleties in online communication. These are all volunteers, they’re doing it on their spare time, they’re not getting paid, they’re very protective of that. They’re a little suspicious of new editors and what might be motivating them.”

So far, the response from the Wikipedia community has been positive, more of a collaboration between communities than one trying to muscle into the other’s turf. “We’re collaborating with various pockets of Wikipedia, because different Wikipedians are motivated by different motives,” Proffitt says. “Some are there to create content, some are copyeditors, some want to fix broken links.”

How does all this fix the gender and racial bias of Wikipedia? The gender one takes a little extrapolation. Eighty three percent of the country’s 166,000 librarians — or, 137,780 people — are women. Meanwhile, according to Wikipedia’s entry on the Wikipedia community, there are 111,877 active editors on the English language version. If there’s significant uptake among the target group, the percentage of female editors on Wikipedia would increase substantially. It’s a lot to expect all librarians to get on board with this project. But if they did, you’d be talking about essentially closing Wikipedia’s gender gap in one fell swoop. Closing the racial gap may be a bit trickier.

“It’s safe to say that librarians are also disproportionately white, but the communities we serve are incredibly diverse,” Proffitt says. “What librarians can do by becoming Wikipedians is bring this out to their people. Public libraries are in every corner, and serve such a variety of audiences.”

“One of the appeals of working with libraries is they help anyone who walks into one develop better skills,” says John Bracken, supervisor of the Knight News Challenge. “You can imagine that the people coming into libraries are a pretty diverse sector. Being involved in the Wikipedia community will benefit everyone.”

The ideal outcome for this project is not simply getting librarians more comfortable with editing one of the Internet’s greatest experiments in archiving our world’s shared history. It’s launching a massive trickle-down effect that will, hopefully, account for all the voices of our world.