A recent article in the New York Times revealed that women make up less than 15% of active contributors to Wikipedia. This has sparked a debate about why women are so underrepresented. Claims that it has something to do with the technology being more congenial to men do not stand up, because the 85/15 split is pretty typical of traditional media too. And don’t even get me started on the ‘brain sex’ argument that men are bound to dominate the world of amateur on-line encyclopedia-writing because they’re basically a bunch of autistics, hard-wired to collect facts and obsess about trivia.
But these explanations have not been the most popular ones. Many contributors to the debate, including some ‘experts’ commissioned by the Times, have suggested that women are deterred from participating in the Wikipedia project by their (unwarranted) feeling of inferiority. Unlike men, most women do not feel entitled to set themselves up as experts, or if they do take that role upon themselves, they lack the confidence to defend their views against contributors who have other ideas.
I am always suspicious of any argument which boils down to ‘women are their own worst enemies’, because in truth, they very rarely are. In this case, for instance, I would say that in general it is men rather than women who think that women are inferior. An extraordinary number of men seem to be genuinely convinced, often without even being consciously aware of it, that they must know better than any woman they find themselves in an argument with. This is not some innate characteristic, it’s an effect of the way they’ve been socialized. But to me it is undoubtedly a reason to steer clear of an enterprise like Wikipedia, which is set up on the assumption that there will be arguments among contributors—and whoever wins the argument gets to delete the loser’s contribution. No woman with any self-esteem wants to spend time and energy writing something if she thinks there’s a good chance that some dickhead who just assumes he knows better will come along and erase it.
Does it matter if Wikipedia is an overwhelmingly male creation? Since the Times article that question has been getting a lot of play on feminist discussion lists, and the consensus seems to be that it does matter. Everyone, it is argued, uses Wikipedia all the time: if the vast bulk of its content reflects only men’s knowledge, men’s interests and men’s perspectives, then the millions who regularly go to it for information are getting a seriously skewed picture of the world.
But some of those who make this criticism have a peculiar idea of what the world would look like if women’s perspectives on it were better represented. One example of gender-bias given by the Times was the dearth of material on Sex and the City by comparison with The Sopranos. Another was the lack of an entry for—I’ve forgotten the exact details, but I think it might have been friendship bracelets. (Writing the last sentence, I had to pause for a moment to retrieve from the recesses of my brain what friendship bracelets actually are; on the question of why anyone should care enough to look them up in an encyclopedia, my brain returned ‘page not found’.) If these really are the kinds of subjects women are interested in writing or reading about, then we probably shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a computer. Not that they are any more trivial than the stuff a lot of male contributors write about, but equal airtime for girly trivia is one feminist cause I feel no great need to champion.
If we really want an on-line encyclopedia which represents our collective knowledge, I think we should probably leave Wikipedia well alone, and go for the separatist option. Dykipedia, anyone?