How Kate Middleton’s Wedding Gown Demonstrates Wikipedia’s Woman Problem

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 13 2012 6:12 PM

How Kate Middleton’s Wedding Gown Demonstrates Wikipedia’s Woman Problem

Kate Middleton at the royal wedding
Debate over the importance of Kate Middleton's wedding gown demonstrates one reason for Wikipedia's gender gap.

Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

According to Wikipedia’s 2011 Editor Survey, just 9 percent of Wiki editors are women. While the gender gap is better than it was—in the early ‘00s, it was more like 3 percent—and the proportion of new editors who are women is rising, the site remains a boys’ club.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

During yesterday’s opening session of Wikimania—the annual Wikimedia confab, held this year in Washington, D.C.—co-founder Jimmy Wales took a question from the audience about the persistent gender gap. One contributing factor, he said, was topic bias. A pillar of Wikipedia is that a subject must meet a level of import to warrant an article. But the community’s geek-colored glasses mean that they may overestimate the value of some articles and underestimate that of others. For instance, he noted, “We have over 100 articles on different Linux distributions, some of them quite obscure … and [they have] virtually no impact on the broader culture, but we think that’s perfectly fine.” The same editors who deem those Linux articles important might dismiss articles on makeup, say, as “some fluffy girl topic”—despite significant cultural impact.

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Wales gave the example of Kate Middleton’s wedding gown. The day of the royal wedding, a Wikipedia article about the dress was flagged for deletion. This prompted an energetic debate, as you can see on the dress’s “article for deletion” page. “ ‘Wedding dress of...’ as an article in an encyclopaedia? Exactly the sort of thing that made me all but quit as an active user on this project,” one user complained. “This is frankly trivial, and surely isn't notable enough to be on wikipedia,” argued another. It wasn’t only men who wanted the article nixed. On the article’s Talk page (where editors debate changes), a female user wrote: “LOL, my thoughts exactly. Will there be an article on her shoes, too?”

Several male users came out in support of the Middleton dress article—including Wales. The day after the wedding, Wales weighed in, contending that they should keep the article because of the dress’ presumable long-term effect on fashion. (In his comments, he drew the same parallel to Linux distributions. He likes that comparison a lot.) Furthermore, he said, they should have items on other famous dresses as well.

One guy advocating deletion made a provocative point: “I really see this idea that keeping this article does something to remedy the gender imbalance here to be facile at best and insulting at worst.” But even if including the Middleton article is a “facile” way to remedy the gender gap, there are other examples of male bias creeping in. Wikimedia Foundation community fellow Sarah Stierch told me that a few months ago, she organized an “edit-a-thon” at which women—some Wiki veterans, some newbies—used Smithsonian records to create new articles on under-recognized female historical figures. Two of the fruits of their labor were rapidly nominated for deletion—and after the decision was made to leave them both intact, one was nominated again. The figure in question: Helen M. Duncan, a paleontologist and geologist who worked in the mid-20th century.  Stierch rallied the troops, and the article remains available. After all, as she points out, if you’re notable enough to be in the Smithsonian archives, chances are you’re notable enough for Wikipedia. (Even Gawker approved of Stierch’s actions.)

But just getting women to sign up as editors isn’t enough. On average, female editors make fewer changes to articles than male editors. And while women enjoy in-person edit-a-thons like the one at the Smithsonian, Stierch says that afterward, they frequently don’t continue to be active online. In an attempt to replicate the success of a more social atmosphere, Stierch has been working on a project called the Teahouse, which is meant to be a collegial, encouraging space for new editors. Along those same lines, Wikia, a for-profit community-edited site also co-founded by Wales, has found that friendlier “message walls,” instead of sparse “user talk pages,” are more popular among women. The move to a visual editor on Wikipedia may help, too. And Wikipedia is now working with the Ada Initiative, a project to encourage women in the open-source community—Ada co-founder Mary Gardiner gave the Wikimania keynote before Wales’ Q&A started.

I’ve never been a Wikipedia editor. The community struck me as uninviting, legalistic. But now I’m reconsidering.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.