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.

Jimmy Wales. Click image to expand.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller announced last week at the National Press Club that news from Egypt was crowding from his paper's front page anything that didn't have an urgent claim on readers' attention. So what made the cut that day, in addition to the dispatches from Cairo and Jerusalem? An article on gender imbalance among Wikipedia contributors. Barely 13 percent of the anonymous, volunteer contributors to the free online encyclopedia are female, according to a study by the Wikimedia Foundation.

The gender imbalance among Wikipedia contributors is not even news. The Wikimedia study came out in August 2009 and was covered by the Wall Street Journal at that time. In the 17 months (which the Times rounds down to "about a year") that this report has been searing the Times' consciousness, the paper has come up with exactly zero new facts to explain the contributor imbalance. Instead, the paper recycles Women's Studies bromides about a female-hostile society, providing a striking display of contemporary feminism's intellectual decadence.

For anyone who is actually interested in finding out whether sexism currently shapes participation in public discourse, Wikipedia is a dream come true. Feminists have been complaining for years about the unequal representation of females on op-ed pages and in influential book reviews, magazines, and journals. In 2005, for example, political commentator Susan Estrich prominently accused editor Michael Kinsley of excluding female writers from the Los AngelesTimes' opinion section. Estrich's only evidence for Kinsley's alleged animosity to women was the lack of gender proportionality among Times contributors, which a posse of Estrich's female students at the University of Southern California law school had been tracking. A New York outfit called the OpEd Project performs the same bean-counting more widely, running a regularly updated gender breakdown of opinion pieces at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and Salon. And last week, Meghan O'Rourke (writing in Slate) and Robin Romm (writing for the Double X blog) reported the results of yet another such tally, this one by the women's literary group VIDA, which counted bylines at 14 influential magazines, book reviews, and literary journals over the course of 2010. Pointing to VIDA's findings—namely, that male bylines outnumbered female ones—O'Rourke concluded that "decisions about who and what gets published" must not be "the result of merit alone." Romm, meanwhile, used the occasion to observe portentously that "the gatekeepers of literary culture—at least at magazines—are still primarily male." Neither felt the need to determine the underlying ratio of male to female writers before decrying the byline imbalance.

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The idea that these gender imbalances represent gatekeeper bias was demonstrably false even before the Wiki reality check. Any female writer or speaker who is not painfully aware of the many instances in which she has been included in a forum because of her sex is self-deluded. Far from being indifferent—much less hostile—to female representation, every remotely mainstream organization today assiduously seeks to include as many females as possible in its ranks. Nevertheless, the idea that someone or something is inhibiting women's intellectual and political involvement remains robust, which is where Wikipedia comes in. Famously, Wikipedia has no gatekeepers. Anyone can write or edit an entry, either anonymously or under his or her own name. All that is required is a zeal for knowledge and accuracy. (The desire to share knowledge and the drive to correct errors are the top motivations of contributors, the Wikimedia study found.) Wikipedia provides a naturally occurring control group to test the theory that females' low participation rate in various public forums is the result of exclusion.

It turns out that without gatekeepers, women's representation drops—which makes sense, given the constant quota-izing by gatekeepers on women's behalf. The barely 13-percent-female participation to Wikipedia is less than the 15-percent-female participation in "public thought-leadership forums" which the OpEd Project has calculated (and which the Times cites), let alone the 27-percent-female participation rate VIDA calculated at TheNew Yorker. Most significantly, even Wiki topics which the Times acknowledges as female-centric, such as the TV show Sex and the City, have meager entries compared to the voluminous, fact-filled essays on allegedly masculine topics such as The Sopranos. The difference in output starts early. The Wiki entry on friendship bracelets, favored by teenage girls, is skimpy compared to those for baseball cards or toy soldiers, reports the Times (though boy hobbies may well be written up by hobby-obsessed men).

The Times' next move reveals the shameless legerdemain with which contemporary feminists and their allies preserve the conceit of a sexist society. Rather than using barrier-free Wikipedia as the benchmark for measuring discrimination in the by-invitation-only world, the Times uses the invitation-only-world as the benchmark for Wikipedia. Since we already know that the low female participation rate in gatekeepered forums is the result of bias, the low female participation rate in Wikipedia must also be the result of bias. Nowhere does the article contemplate the possibility that Wikipedia may instead reveal different innate predilections for what the Times condescendingly calls "an obsessive fact-loving realm."

Given the challenge of identifying barriers to women in a forum open to all, it is no surprise that the people quoted in the article speak in gibberish. The Times introduces the first of its experts thus:

Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd, says Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. This includes an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.

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