Women and Wikipedia

For my final project for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power in the Digital Age at the Kennedy School, I intend to research and write on why there are so few women editors on Wikipedia. The first global Wikipedia survey in 2010 found that only 13 percent of the site’s editors were female. Since then, many theories have emerged to explain women’s low participation (e.g. their dislike of “editing wars,” their lack of time, their dislike of the sexism and misogyny sometimes present on Wikipedia, etc.). Most theories center on elements of Wikipedia’s culture that make the site an unwelcoming or unpleasant space for women.

The theme I’ve identified across theories, and the reason I would argue for why fewer women participate as Wikipedia editors, is that it is not only the elements of Wikipedia’s culture that women find unappealing, but specifically the lack of control women have to change these as users of the site. For instance, an editor who contributes to Wikipedia has no control over what happens to her contribution, and may be frustrated to find that rather than have a dissenting opinion shared in a comments section (as might be the case on a site such as Yelp), it has simply replaced her work. Similarly, a Wikipedia editor cannot easily control or restrict interactions with others on the site, and thus has fewer methods of recourse if she experiences harassment from trolls (whereas on Facebook she might adjust her privacy settings). This inability to control some of the negative spillover effects of Wikipedia’s open-source model creates a scenario in which “open” doesn’t include everyone.

I’ll also explore how recent efforts by the Wikimedia Foundation to increase women’s participation have played out, and argue that the Foundation’s stalled progress on this front is due to their focus on training and engaging with women primarily offline, rather than providing them with greater control online. The latter would require fundamental changes to Wikipedia’s open-source model, however, that are unlikely to be welcomed by the Wikipedia community.

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