Wikipedia sexist? How the New York Times Misinterprets the Site's Gender Gap.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 9 2011 4:04 PM

Wikipedia Is Male-Dominated. That Doesn't Mean It's Sexist.

Why the New York Times and feminists should stop hyperventilating about the Web site's gender gap.

(Continued from Page 1)

No examples of such "discouragement" are provided, so let us move on to Reagle's first quote: "It is ironic," he tells the Times, "because I like these things — freedom, openness, egalitarian ideas — but I think to some extent they are compounding and hiding problems you might find in the real world." This statement is nonsensical: How do "freedom, openness, and egalitarian ideas" both "compound and hide problems"? Does it now turn out that freedom and openness stand as barriers to the feminists' sought-after equality of results between women and men?

Let's generously interpret Reagle's remark to mean that the ball-and-chain of sexist repression that women carry around in the "real world" continues to shackle them when it comes to Wikipedia. But Reagle's attempt to clarify how this might work is even more incomprehensible. The Times quotes him as follows: "Adopting openness means being 'open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,' [Reagle] said, 'so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem.' " Again, it's hard to know what he means. Glossing generously once more, one might surmise that Reagle is saying that becoming a Wikipedia contributor means having to interact with "very difficult ... people, even misogynists." But the implication—that "misogynists" are disproportionately represented among Wiki contributors—is not backed up by a shred of evidence.

Misogyny, for Reagle as for most feminists, is apparently an a priori premise, not something that you ever have to demonstrate. He gives no hint at what common element in Wikipedia's 17 million articles attracts these alleged misogynists. Furthermore, how would a Wikipedia misogynist even know that he was dealing with a female, since most contributors are anonymous? Or are misogynists so clever that they can spot female prose without identification? (The lurking-misogynists hypothesis might at least explain why Wikipedia's Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo entries are, as the Times notes, so skimpy: Misogynists must be homing in on likely female-generated text and swatting it down.)

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Perhaps Reagle simply means that women have a hard time dealing with "very difficult, high conflict people." If that is so, it's hard to see how interpersonal difficulty is a result of gender bias. Lots of men have a hard time dealing with such people too; I am not aware that such difficulty becomes a "problem" for society to solve. If you don't like to debate, perhaps you should avoid the debate club rather than calling for its reconstitution into a mutual-agreement society.

The rest of the Times' experts expound an identical line: The same unspecified barriers that supposedly prevent women from expressing themselves elsewhere also prevent women from contributing to Wikipedia. The article quotes Jane Margolis, co-author of a book on sexism in computer science and senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA: "In almost every space, who are the authorities, the politicians, writers for op-ed pages?" she asks darkly. To restate the obvious, there are no "authorities" on Wikipedia; it is open to all. The issue before us, then, is whether Wikipedia's low female participation rate proves that the low female participation rate in other forums is a result of choice, rather than barriers.

The most straightforward explanation for the differing rates of participation in Wikipedia—and the one that conforms to everyday experience—is that, on average, males and females have different interests and preferred ways of spending their free time. These differences include, on average, the orientation toward highly "fact-based realms" as well as the drive to acquire and expand abstract knowledge. (Needless to say, thousands of female physicists, chemists, and historians are pioneers in their fields, pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge.) I know no females who can provide off the top of their head three decades of data on swing voters in Pennsylvania's 63rd district (though some are undoubtedly out there), but I know several males who live for such arcana. While there are some females who track baseball statistics with as much zeal as males, they are in the minority. Subjects of disproportionately female interest, such as celebrity fashion flubs, have not generated the same bank of shared knowledge as sports records. Wikipedia articles will, of course, reflect this disparity.

Wikipedia's gender imbalance is a non-problem in search of a misguided solution. It would do a lot less damage to equality to acknowledge that men and women are not identical in their interests than to suggest that "freedom, openness, [and] egalitarian ideas" are inconsistent with female self-realization. Besides, the vast majority of men don't contribute to Wikipedia, just as the vast majority of women don't. The site has only 91,000 active contributors; that leaves a lot of men whose "voices" are also not being heard.

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