Fem-Tech Edit-a-thon sparks discussions about Wikipedia gender gap

(This guest post is a commentary by Wikipedia editor Adrianne Wadewitz and is part of the series on the WikiWomen’s Collaborative)

On Friday, October 26, 2012, I headed over to Claremont Graduate University to give a presentation about Wikipedia to a group of approximately 20 feminist undergraduates, graduate students, professors and deans as part of an event designed to raise awareness of feminist issues relating to Wikipedia. The FemTech Edit-a-Thon was sponsored by the Claremont Feminist, Anti-Racist Digital Humanities Project and initiated by the University of California Feminist & Technology Network and the Fembot Collective.

A participant at the first FemTech Edit-a-thon.

A participant at the first FemTech Edit-a-thon.

I’ve run these edit-a-thons many times before: usually I explain the basic working rules of Wikipedia and then we all edit Wikipedia together. This event, however, was different. After socializing with the participants and listening to the short, provocative presentations by a group of feminist scholars, I realized that I should radically change my approach. Instead of a traditional edit-a-thon, we debated and discussed some of the thorny issues surrounding women and technology, including the difficulty of being a feminist scholar, activist, and educator while participating on Wikipedia.

Since many of the speakers offered challenges to the structure, rules, and ethos of Wikipedia, I decided on the spur of the moment that I would represent the “establishment” of the encyclopedia and its community. I wanted the participants to feel that they could ask me anything they wanted about how Wikipedia worked and why. I wanted to provide the group with a real person to query. And while I would try to explain the site’s rules, I would not necessarily justify them, unless I felt compelled to do so through my own experience.

As an example of how articles about women are handled on Wikipedia and how Wikipedia is central in shaping knowledge, I showed the history of the Sandra Fluke article; its deletion; its recreation as Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy; and its final recreation three and a half months later as “Sandra Fluke.” This led to a larger discussion about how the structure of Wikipedia and its conception of knowledge perpetuates the patriarchy. “Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy” was the first Google hit for Sandra Fluke’s name for at least three months. As became clear from our conversation, Wikipedia’s rules are not neutral or objective – they have very real political consequences. Wikipedia allowed Sandra Fluke to be defined by Rush Limbaugh’s wildly inappropriate and derogatory comments, rather than by her own life story, and helped fuel an irrelevant news story.

We also discussed how Wikipedia’s rules (e.g. NPOV) further masculine ways of knowing. Certain feminist theories and movements foreground the importance of individual voices and personal stories. Two participants in the discussion brought up that seeing tags that assert that the Catherine Opie and the Angie Chabram-Dernersesian articles are too “storylike” or “autobiographical” fly in the face of those feminisms. Wikipedia’s dogged insistence on “objectivity” and “neutrality” – something that all Wikipedians know cannot be achieved anyway – reinforces what many feminists would argue is a masculine way of seeing the world. Rejecting the lived, personal experience of women and the ways in which they tell their stories can thus be seen as a rejection of feminism. There was thus a call from some participants to actively add this kind of content to Wikipedia as a way of resisting the patriarchy.

Throughout the afternoon, we kept coming back to a point made in the opening remarks by one participant, who addressed the need to better include the voices of underrepresented groups on Wikipedia. Wikipedia suffers from the same exclusionary problems of the Encyclopédie of old: it has limited much of its content to the history and concerns of white men. In this context, we discussed the gender gap of editors on the English Wikipedia (while acknowledging that we knew little about other language Wikipedias in this regard) and the coverage of topics related to women’s history. I repeatedly emphasized that if we wanted to change how or what knowledge was represented on Wikipedia, we had to edit it ourselves and reach out to other communities who are not currently included there.

However, in asking women and people of color to edit Wikipedia, it was pointed out to me, aren’t we asking them to give away their labor for free in a world that already devalues their labor? Many women work for less than they are worth or for nothing. This is a very tricky issue. Obviously, the Wikipedia community should not perpetuate the labor problems that plague the world and contribute to the gender inequity in the labor market. On the other hand, the information provided by Wikipedia is freely available, therefore it could be an important asset to women without financial means or access to education. In my opinion, those of us who are paid fairly for our labor are doubly responsible for making Wikipedia a reliable source of information.

Because editing Wikipedia as a woman and a feminist can be challenging, I was asked about my personal experiences. I can talk about being a pseudonymous editor who then “came out” as female. I freely shared my experiences with the participants, explaining how I was treated differently – and with much less respect – on the site once others knew I was woman. My arguments were much more likely to be described as “logical” when my gender was unknown; once others knew I was woman, I was much more likely to be described as “emotional,” “hysterical” and the like. Or to be simply dismissed.

We ended the afternoon by discussing how one could be a feminist activist on the site. Our ideas included everything from adding content on women to reviewing articles to changing guidelines for WikiProjects to using Wikipedia in the classroom. I am happy to report that, as a result of this session, several participants are now using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. We also have planned an editing session and we are spreading a deeper understanding of Wikipedia.

Adrianne Wadewitz, Wadewitz

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11 Comments on Fem-Tech Edit-a-thon sparks discussions about Wikipedia gender gap

FemaleWikipediaEditor 3 years

Oh good gods – I am so sick of this. Why can’t Americans talk about class and status, rather than forever framing the discussion in terms of minorities? I stopped calling myself a “feminist” when it became clear to me that the majority of self-identified feminists subscribed to gender essentialism, and constantly took it upon themselves to describe the needs and experience of (all) women in ways that were irrelevant to my personal experience.

Wikipedia is a volunteer project (unless you count the paid-and-generally-out-of-touch Wikimedia people). Volunteer project == unpaid labour. It may (or may not) be that encouraging the oppressed to volunteer/donate is itself oppressive. But why the beep does this need to be phrased in terms of gender.

Wikipedia also has all the usual faults of large volunteer projects – cliques by the square mile, “consensus” formed by drowning out/marginalizing opposition, etc. etc. In my experience of volunteer organizations, this kind of behaviour is in no way gender linked.

In addition, it tends to all the faults of internet-mediated/virtual communication – in particular, lack of emotional nuance, lack of feelings of connection, etc., particularly for those whose social skills are heavily dependent on body language. Many people in such an environment resort to blatant verbal bullying. Some can’t or won’t deal with that, and leave. Others focus on the task and ignore the bullies – to the extent possible, given the usual cliquishness and false consensus policies. Others get miserable about lack of social interaction and deselect themselves (i.e. leave).

And while some of this is unpleasant, it’s perfectly OK if most people would rather not volunteer in such an environment. It’s unfortunate that the product is skewed because of the reduced contributor diversity. But I’ve never yet seen a volunteer organization which could square that circle.

There may or may not be a gender gap among Wikipedia editors. Given the policy of anonymity, there’s no way to determine this – and from my experience with other online communities, it’s quite likely that large numbers of editors are either gender bending (using names that misrepresent their gender/sex) or using gender neutral names (the most common type on Wikipedia) and being presumed male because of other cultural biases. Add to that the tendency for Wikipedia to repel fluffy social types of any gender, and someone looking for obviously female editors (female named and/or stereotypically feminine) isn’t going to find many.

IMO the effort to encourage/increase the stereotypically feminine population of Wikipedians is doomed to failure, and misses the point entirely. There are women editing Wikipedia, and I at least find this effort to get more women (but NOT people like me) extremely annoying. It also reads to me as condescending towards women in general – the poor little fluffy bunny weaklings need all kinds of help to manage anything online. Aargh!

Debbie Notkin 3 years

I come from the perspective that “objective” and “neutral” map closely onto “masculine POV” and “impersonal,” and that feminism is in no way incompatible with fact-based writing, even when it includes the personal, I wanted to bring in another point.

Another way that “objective” and “neutral” work is that they are very middle-class (and above) values. The best resource I know to understand this is Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes, published earlier this year by Cornell University Press. I can’t recap all of Jensen’s arguments here, so I’ll just say that leaving out the lived experience and the individual voice is one way that academia (and by extension Wikipedia) silences the working class and blurs the class divisions. And I say this as someone who is relentlessly middle-class and has had to learn (some of) this the hard way, with a lot more to learn.

DB 3 years

Oh, it runs deeper than that. The whole idea of singling out particular individuals as more significant than other individuals, and of implying that this has something to do with their worthiness to be considered, strikes me as a fundamentally masculinist enterprise. The whole notion of an encyclopedia of significant factual knowledge is a masculinist project. That doesn’t make it a bad project, but it does mean that any attempt to project feminist values are going to be fought on masculinist turf (itself a masculinist metaphor), and thus be at an inherent disadvantage. There could be such a thing as a feminist compendium of knowledge, but its whole structure and values would be entirely different, on a deep level that Wikipedia couldn’t conceive.

OttawaAC 3 years

What irks me is the vocal push by some misogynists to not welcome feminists who question WP’s stated claims to “neutrality” and “objectivity”. The article didn’t say feminists were opposed to those values; the way I read it, it’s saying that whenever feminists, or anyone from any demographic minority, questions the conventional wisdom that First World, university-educated males write from a narrow, and therefore biased perspective, they get shouted down and told they’re unwelcome as editors. From my experience, that’s the truth of it. It isn’t like feminists are arguing that gravity can’t be objectively proven. Many feminists, and others, are trying to throw some light on perspectives that have historically been forced into the shadows.

Research highlighted in this week’s WP news shows how skewed WP’s articles are towards regurgitating the Dead White Guy version of “objectivity” and “neutrality”, rather than analyzing and synthesizing multiple and divergent points of view in exploring article topics. Diverse perspectives are valuable for presenting a 360 degree view of a topic. I see a lot of exclusionism, efforts to AfD anything that doesn’t fit the status quo, even when eminently reliable sources are supplied (I speak from experience there). WP is skewing Establishment, Old School, and there are ignorant editors who don’t welcome different perspectives. The criteria for reliable sources and NPOV definitely need to include sources more diverse than academic journals (whose research is sometimes later proven to be biased) and other encyclopedias that have been out of print for 100 years (and from where quite a bit of WP’s content has been grifted from!).

An 3 years

OttawaAC, it is quite possible to value objectivity and neutrality, and to actively work towards achieving them, while still recognizing that they are not perfectly achievable. In my opinion, the majority of Wikipedia editors feel that way.

An encyclopedia which at least attempts to be neutral and objective will be a better and more useful work than one which does not. In fact, a work that does not aspire to reflect those core values cannot truly be called an encyclopedia.

Someone who is actively opposed to neutrality and objectivity as values (rather than just believing them to be ultimately unobtainable) is probably someone who we should not welcome into the Wikipedia community.

OttawaAC 3 years

Bit of a rant…. As a female and an artsy, it intrigues me that the current demographic majority among editors is so certain in its presumption that information can always be communicated in a neutral and objective way. But then, they’ve mostly never studied communications theory or practise, or even much of the history of science. Otherwise they’d be aware of the inherent bias in individual perceptions, the gaps and misunderstandings that are inescapable in language, and so much else that make objectivity and neutrality desirable goals…and ultimately about as attainable in this world as true perfection.

We will never see complete perfection in this world. Nor total objectivity, nor neutrality. Now, if you know a bit about propaganda, you can always redefine “perfection”, “objectivity” and “neutrality” to suit your needs; this is what “the patriarchy” does. They seem to have taken out patents on the terms. The Wikipedia equivalent to “pwning” objectivity and neutrality is to point to WP’s policies re: reliable sources, and constantly redefining what is considered a reliable source. When female editors learn how to play that game, they’ll have it beat.~~~~

An 3 years

Is it really true that modern feminists believe “objectivity” and “neutrality” are inherently masculine values, and something that they must ever reject? If so, it is hard to see what role those feminists might ever play in writing an encyclopaedia, where those values will always be first-order objectives.

Curious George 3 years

I’d love to see an instance of someone calling the author “emotional” or “hysterical” on Wikipedia.

Adam 3 years

I’m not seeing the contradiction. On the one hand, Wikipedia policies promote masculinity as a positive goal (objective, neutral, detached). On the other, Wikipedian attitudes towards “out” women deride femininity as negative (emotional, hysterical, illogical); not the mention to prejudicial assumption of these traits being used to exclude women in the first place. As a whole: masculinity good, femininity bad.

On a different subject: I think it may be difficult-to-impossible to eliminate the bias towards the “history and concerns of white men”. Most of history was recorded by men and a lot of it (in English, most of it) by white men; rich white men of the landed gentry, at that. Articles about contemporary or recent subjects should be broader but historically we are limited by our sources.

Adrianne Wadewitz 3 years

I would expect there to be lots of tensions between what different feminists want, actually. This discussion was about the variety of ways to be a feminist within and around Wikipedia and what all of that entails.

just an editor 3 years

There are two, seemingly contradictory, perspectives offered. Firstly, that Wikipedia policies contain “masculine ways of knowing”. But then, when people attached feminine qualities onto the editor after she came out, that was bad.

So is the discussion about including feminine qualities into Wikipedia, or is it about treating women equally? Surely these both can’t be true.

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