A recent NY Times article by Noam Cohen titled “Define gender gap? Look up Wikipedia’s contributor list” reveals a shocking statistic: women make up barely thirteen percent of Wikipedia’s contributor base. The overwhelming majority of contributors to the online encyclopedia are males in their mid-twenties. While this statistic is certainly attention grabbing, what is even more disturbing is the reason stated for the lopsided numbers: women are less willing than men to assert their opinions in public. According to Catherine Orenstein, founder of the OpEd project, women lack confidence to put forth their views, which explains why there is an eighty-five to fifteen percent male to female contributor discrepancy seen among professional op-ed writers. Yet is this truly the reason? Perhaps women are confident enough to express their opinions, but they just aren’t given the same opportunities. Maybe it is more of a glass ceiling issue, at least in the professional realm. Yet this still wouldn’t explain why a similar statistic carries over to the amateur sphere of Wikipedia. However, could that discrepancy be explained more realistically by differences in educational experiences? Girls today are still not encouraged to explore math, science and technology related fields at the same rate as boys. This gender difference can be seen as early as middle school, and it carries through to higher education. So wouldn’t it then make sense that some women lack the skills needed to compete in tech savvy fields? The point is, there are certainly other reasons for the gender gap beyond stating that women lack confidence.
What is even more disturbing is Wikipedia’s response to this gender gap. In the NY Times article, Sue Gardener, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the organization that runs Wikipedia), suggests that the site use “subtle persuasion” to welcome female contributors, rather than outright recruitment. She states: “Gender is a hot button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it. I am not interested in triggering those strong feelings.” Other female board members agree that such an approach “would cause less unease in the Wikipedia community.” What irony–here are women acknowledging a gender gap that they believe is due to a lack of assertiveness on the part of women, and they are lacking assertiveness when it comes to offering a plan to close the gap. Don’t they see that they are perpetuating the very problem they are trying to solve?
The gender imbalance seen on Wikipedia does not seem to carry over to sites like glowbass.com. While a quick analysis of the local Boulder site reveals certain gender differences by category (more women write for the Equestrian topic and more men write for Combat Sports, for instance), there does not seem to be an overall imbalance of male/female writers. So are glowbass.com writers just more confident than Wikipedia contributors? I don’t think so, which leads me to question the confidence explanation.