by Gregory Kohs
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May 16, 2012
Sue Gardner in conversation with the notorious Derrick Coetzee
In 2010, Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner bemoaned the fact that only 13 percent of Wikipedia’s contributing editors were women. She blogged about it, she chimed in on discussions on the Foundation’s mailing list, and even The New York Times reported on it, which spawned at least a dozen other news outlets mirroring the story.
Sue Gardner made it one of her top priorities to get more women writing those Wikipedia articles, setting a goal to raise their share from 13 percent to 25 percent, by the year 2015. And the Wikimedia Foundation funded Gardner in part to complete that objective with a personal compensation package of $240,159 (in fiscal 2010). So, it has to be very disheartening for Ms. Gardner to learn that a more recent study finds that her efforts apparently are pushing Wikipedia’s female community in the wrong direction — now, only 9 percent of Wikipedia’s editors happen to be women.
What might be causing Gardner’s important initiative to fail like this? We spoke with a few experts to try to gain some perspective on Gardner’s challenge and her tactics.
Linda Steiner is Professor and Director of Research and Doctoral Studies at the University of Maryland’s school of Journalism. She studies the impact of gender in news and media organizations and in reporting. She notes:
“Wikipedia has a reputation for being a kind of wild West, attracting cowboys — with a decided preference for shoot-em-ups. That is, the Wikipedia culture seems a masculine environment, dominated by men, especially white men, who don’t mind debate and ad hominem attacks, and who put out their views and assert that their views and their products are worthy and important. So this will alienate women who have been socialized to stick to more formal and civil discussion, who are reluctant to assert themselves and to assume that what interests or concerns them is necessarily important to others. Thus, Wikipedia has mainly white men writing articles, and they are writing primarily about things that interest white men.”
One of the “most influential women in tech” is Kaliya Hamlin, an expert consultant in the area of user-centric identity and data sharing. She notices that “[Gardner] doesn’t say how Wikipedia is going to do any of the strategies she puts forward.” Hamlin also has noted how her female peers have been treated as subjects in Wikipedia biographies:
“Personally seeing leading women thinkers and researchers in related fields have articles about them [in Wikipedia] attacked by the mob of editors claiming they are ‘not important enough’ (danah boyd as a key example) and the continuous flagging of articles in my field of expertise (digital identity) dissuades me from trying to get involved in editing. I don’t have time to get involved in the level of intense ‘alpha male’ discourse involved in ‘fighting’ for your edits.”
Aliza Sherman launched the first three general interest websites for women, and she’s become an author, lecturer, and women’s issues activist. Regarding biographies of women on Wikipedia, she tells her personal story:
“I actually *do* have a bio on Wikipedia.
My own experience with it has been fraught with frustration, starting with getting it accepted — it was deleted the first time I submitted it (before I knew submitting your own profile was considered ‘bad form’). I was ‘accused’ of being too ‘self-promotional’ by a Wikipedia editor. The irony: I had copied the bio of Internet businessman Joi Ito to ‘get the format right’ and replaced his credentials with my own. Yet his was allowed to remain while mine was flagged and subsequently removed.
I resubmitted my bio over a year later *identical* to the first, and it remains today although has now been edited over time by others and occasionally by me. I have since found a colleague who is comfortable editing Wikipedia pages and call on him to help me on occasion to update and correct my listing. My Wikipedia listing has been filled with inaccuracies from edits made by others — and since they use a citation for their ‘facts’ with a completely inaccurate biography of me in an Internet ‘encyclopedia’ based mostly on erroneous news articles from the 90s, I am unable to completely clear up the mistakes.
I can’t even begin to describe the nightmare I had trying to add a photograph to my bio.”
What Sherman probably didn’t realize is that Joi Ito was a personal donor of at least $1,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation’s 2007 fundraising drive. Wikipedia has a long history of protecting the articles of its friends and contributors, while savaging the articles of its detractors.
One woman who had a disturbing run-in with one of Wikipedia’s elite editors is Elisa Gabbert, a writer of poetry and prose, who made the “mistake” one day of criticizing Wikipedia in her blog. Within a day, there was a Wikipedia biography about her. As long-time contributor to Wikipedia, Kelly Martin, notes: the biography was “fairly clearly crafted to identify her as a search engine optimizer, a category of people that is widely regarded as evil by the people who live in wikispace. This is pretty much as close to being a hatchet job without actually waving the hatchet.” Gabbert herself realized what was going on:
“Some wag went and created a Wikipedia page for me. A little bird told me it was Fred Bauder.
So criticizing Wikipedia in my tiny corner of the internet has somehow made me a target for the editors. Could this be why there aren’t more women in the Wikipedia community? It’s a little threatening.”
Host of the “Women Are Not Funny” radio show, Kay Ballard, seemed to have figured out that Sue Gardner’s biggest problem in solving the gender gap on Wikipedia just may be Sue Gardner. Prior to losing her battle with cancer on May 18, Ballard gave us this exclusive review of Gardner’s famous blog post:
“Gardner’s blog post is interesting indeed. The first thing that didn’t ring true was her claiming the ‘Wikimedia / free culture / free software / Silicon Valley and the STEM world’ as ‘our space’. That was, quite frankly, weird given her preceding statements.
But her replies to her blog’s comments were really freaky. She went back and forth as if she couldn’t agree with herself about which position to take.
Women are more inclined than men to be pleasers. This is a well documented observation. But in Gardner’s case, she is answering to a Board of Directors, who may be pressuring her openly or more subtly to please everyone. Maybe she has been discouraged to take a stand. Maybe she is less accustomed to taking a stand — a result that could spring from her life as a woman or from her personality or nature generally. Maybe she doesn’t know the meaning of taking a stand. Maybe she is tired of taking a stand.”
Whatever the case, the evidence shows that ever since Sue Gardner began her crusade to bring more women editors to Wikipedia, the proportion of female editors has dropped over 30%. Gardner was not reached for comment.