Beki Grinter

Shaping Knowledge, Shaping Society

In academia, academic management, computer science, HCI, social media on February 1, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Yesterday the New York Times reports that 10 years since the inception of wikipedia the balance of contribution is 15% women to 85% men. The article goes on to attribute this to the lack of diversity in Computing. Not just the discipline of Computer Science, but a broader orientation to computers and Computing.

What the article does almost nicely is to show how this imbalance in participation shapes the knowledge created. Articles that appeal to the majority of writers are longer. Articles that do not are far more cursory. I said almost nicely, I wish that they had not picked a shoe designer and Sex in the City. Potential to suggest stronger stereotypes than I think are warranted… but on the other hand easier to make the case directly to more people. They did highlight female writers, although I wondered whether the Mexican writers versus Simpsons might also be explained by cultural weightings, where are the people who write wikipedia articles from and what might that imply about what they care about.

Others argue that women feel less able to contribute their opinions in public than men do, and suggest that as a cause for the balance of participation in wikipedia. I do not disagree but I do wonder whether having more women in positions where their opinion is required would help. What, for example, if there were more Full Professors who were women. Visible on the national and international stages for expressing their opinions, based on their scholarship. That likely sounds self-serving, my point is that more women in any position where their opinion is a central part of their career might encourage this. I say that because I would like to avoid the impression that the reticence to express opinion is somehow inherent to being a woman, I think we need to consider their many centuries of oppression.

Why does the shaping of knowledge created matter? Pew Internet reports that 42% of Americans use wikipedia to look for information. The producers of that information determine what is disseminated and consumed. And I am sure that this goes way beyond gender concerns. There is a power that comes with the ability to control the production of information, power over those who can not, a type of control to promote certain values inherent in the production of knowledge itself.

A final note, Wikipedia was set up with the notion of anyone can participate. What 10 years of wikipedia tells us is that inviting participation does not necessarily invite equal participation. Removing the boundary to create information will not alone change the creation of information, not without addressing all the other hurdles that frame and encourage participation.

Update: NYT piece talks about power…

Update: a female editor of wikipedia explains why the imbalance matters, very nicely.


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