Wikipedia and the gender gap

Really interesting article in the Times today about the huge (but, not at all surprising) gender gap in Wikipedia contributors:

In 10 short years, Wikipedia has accomplished some remarkable goals. More than 3.5 million articles in English? Done. More than 250 languages?  Sure.

But another number has proved to be an intractable obstacle for the online encyclopedia: surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.

I think far more than the content of individual posts, the effect is on what gets covered and how extensively it gets covered.  Some examples:

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs. And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on “Sex and the City” includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on “The Sopranos” includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode.

Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons”?

Not surprisingly, what’s going on in Wikipedia is simply part of a larger social phenomenon:

According to the OpEd Project, an organization based in New York that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to “public thought-leadership forums,” a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.

It would seem to be an irony that Wikipedia, where the amateur contributor is celebrated, is experiencing the same problem as forums that require expertise. But Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.

A great example of this is the gender gap in political knowledge.  Almost half the observed gap in men knowing more about politics than women actually comes from the fact that men are much more willing to guess when uncertain of the answer to a political question.  There’s still a gap once this accounted for, but it certainly is interesting how much of it is really about men’s greater confidence to express political opinions.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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