Interview: Wikipedia seeks to close gender gap

08 December 2011 - 10:59 By Sapa-dpa

Few of Wikipedia’s contributors are female. Sue Gardner wants to close the gender gap and by so doing increase the quality of the online encyclopedia.

The executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation hopes that a new visual editor will attract more users, including women, as she explained in an interview with the news agency dpa.

Q: Roughly 9 out of 10 Wikipedia editors are male. Why does the Wikimedia Foundation consider that a problem?

Sue Gardner: It is a priority for us to raise the number of women who edit. The reason is quality: Wikipedia aspires to contain the sum of all human knowledge, and we are not able to do that if our editor base is a narrow group of people. Women have a very wide range of interests and experiences and backgrounds. But we can assume that if they are not represented roughly to their equivalent of the population, there are gaps in the coverage. To me, it is not an ethical issue, it is not political correctness, but it is to ensure the quality of Wikipedia.

Q: Can you give us an example?

Gardner: I am big fan of the prize winning author Pat Barker. I think she is terrific. On the English Wikipedia, there was only a very short article. She deserves a more complete article than that, so I added a few paragraphs. To name another example: Design is not well covered in the Wikipedia, either.

Q: What are the reasons for the gender gap?

Gardner: 2001, when Wikipedia started, most of the people interacting on the internet were men. People who started writing Wikipedia tended to be highly geeky, they were interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It was a tiny subset of the population. Over the years, it didn’t evolve. Part of that is because of technology. For editing Wikipedia you have to learn Wiki syntax. Research suggests that men are likelier to find technology fun.

Q: But there are also social factors. Wikipedians sometimes use a very harsh tone.

Gardner: I am always hesitant to make sweeping generalisations about gender. But many women say they like a pleasant supportive environment where everybody is friendly and warm and welcoming. The Wikipedia community is a little bit different from that, it tends to really like argumentation and debate.

Q: How do you try to achieve more women?

Gardner: We aren’t setting out specific programs to recruit women. Women are half the world, so it seems absurd: How would you target half the world? So we are making efforts to increase our general outreach and hope to disproportionally attract more women with that. We have educational programs where we work with schools. And we have campus ambassadors who teach students how to work with Wikipedia. Half of them are women. There is research to suggest that men will put themselves forward without invitation, women will tend to want to be invited. That is what we are trying to do: Create an environment where people want to help.

Q: Articles are written in Wiki syntax, which is a technical impediment to many users. When will the easy-to-use visual editor be introduced?

Gardner: We are going to have a prototype of the visual editor hopefully by the end of December. But it is going to be rolled out for experienced Wikipedians first. It is a really important project from the software perspective. Software features need to be developed in collaboration with the editing community and we aspire to achieve consensus with the editors, that makes things very, very slow.

Q: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said: “Real artists ship,” meaning that it is important to deliver.

Gardner: In some respects we are really the opposite of Apple.

It was one man with a single, compelling vision who got everybody else to conform to what he wanted. Their values are totally different than ours. For example, they value secrecy a lot because it is a competitive advantage. The conditions within the Wikipedia community are quite different.