Gender imbalance amongst contributors to Wikipedia

From the New York Times:

Surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of [Wikipedia’s] hundreds of thousands of contributors are women…

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but she is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.

Her effort is not diversity for diversity’s sake, she says. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be,” Ms. Gardner said…

Jane Margolis, co-author of a book on sexism in computer science, “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” argues that Wikipedia is experiencing the same problems of the offline world, where women are less willing to assert their opinions in public. “In almost every space, who are the authorities, the politicians, writers for op-ed pages?” said Ms. Margolis, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Margolis’s comments about how Wikipedia is typical in this respect of many offline areas of activity particularly caught my eye because of the parallels with the Liberal Democrats. Whether you look at Lib Dem bloggers, contributors to Lib Dem Voice or comments on Lib Dem Voice (three areas where I’ve been collating some statistics in conjunction with the Hansard Society), there’s a strong male bias.

However, the same is true of the offline world. The majority of voters are women, the majority of Liberal Democrat voters are often women, a small majority of party members are male (c.53% – 47%) and then when you move on to any other more active or higher profile form of involvement, the gender imbalance tips sharply. Whether it’s local party officers, local councillors, Parliamentary candidates or similar, that 53% figure moves sharply upwards.

The same is true outside politics too, such as the male majority amongst writers of letters to newspaper, though it’s not true about blogging in general (see here for more on both of these points).

What’s refreshing about Wikipedia is the acknowledgement that the imbalance reduces the quality of its sites as it means that some topics are far more heavily covered than others which might attract just as much interest from readers. That is similar to a point that used to be mentioned far more in debates within the Liberal Democrats, but has become less frequently mentioned in recent years, namely that aside from the important points about equality for individuals, it’s also the case that better gender balance often attracts more support for the Liberal Democrats. It’s not so overwhelming a relationship that it displaces other factors completely, but nor is it non-existent.

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