Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The poor underrepresented women of Wikipedia

with 2 comments

For the second time in about six months, I today encountered a view that Wikipedia’s “gender” situation would be problematice. Below, I will briefly discuss and critique some of the ideas in the light of the premise that “less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women” (a premise which matches my own experiences reasonably well and which is not put under investigation):

  1. Efforts to increase the number of women are hampered by “traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women”.

    Leaving the issue of whether increasing the number of specifically female editors is a worthy goal aside:

    The traditions of the computer world are of disputable relevance.

    Obsessive fact-loving is a pre-requisite for a good encyclopedia. The facts must not be compromised in order to increase the proportion of female editors. Any solution must, therefore, involve making women involved despite their aversion or to change the women’s attitude—not Wikipedia’s. (This assuming that the claim was correct in the first place.)

  2. A stated goal is to increase the proportion of women, yet the discussion is based on an argument that “Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” and “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”—which is an argument to increase the absolute number of participants (be it of either sex or specifically women). Correspondingly, the goal should be to increase the number of women—not the proportion of women. Indeed, the way Wikipedia works, a sinking proportion can actually be good, e.g. when we see X new women and 100X new men instead of X women and X men (with X having the same value on both occasions; the conclusion is obviously symmetrical when the increase of men is fixed and that of women variable). This, certainly, is an exception, but the point that absolute numbers matter, not relative, stands clear.

    Notably, the other article (published in a Swedish newspaper; I do not recall the details) was largely based in a failure to realise this basic principle and the common Swedish fallacy that any difference in outcome is a sign of difference in opportunity that must be fought.

  3. “Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs.”

    The noticeably more famous Coco Chanelw and Yves Saint Laurentw have noticeably longer articles. In addition, the writings need not be limited to the “personal” articles on the designers, but can extend into e.g. articles on the companies they founded. For that matter, the articles on e.g. Charles Rollsw (as in Rolls-Royce) or Bentleyw are not overly long either.

  4. ‘Adopting openness means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,” ’.

    If Wikipedia is to be open, then it has to be open to everyone who does not misbehave and breaks the rules that are in place. To imply (as is done here) that men would have more difficult and high-conflict specimens than women, is … misandrist. Notably, in my experience, the proportion of women who fall into these categories is higher than for men; notably, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that misogynism would be flowering due to openness. The whole angle seems to be cheap rhetoric and additionally risks throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  5. ‘But Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.’

    One of the beauties of Wikipedia is that complete anonymity is possible (as far as other users/editors are concerned). If the minority feeling stems from being a woman among men, the solution is simply to chose a male or neutral alias and/or to get over any irrational fixation on sex instead of opinion where others are concerned. If it stems from the opinion—well, it is the same for everyone with a minority opinion and being a woman is irrelevant.

    More importantly, Wikipedia is not based on personal opinion on this-and-that, but on references, scientific consensus, and similar items. Opinion is, then, relevant as to which scientific hypothesis is dominating, what sub-issue or hypothesis should be given what weight, what articles are not up-to-par quality-wise, etc. Long discussions, even fights, on such topics notwithstanding, the opinions in the actual matter at hand are easy to push through—just find a reference from a credible source and put in the text that “Smith [97] writes that …”.

  6. Much of the article can be paraphrased as “Women do not feel welcome and therefore do not participate.” (where, I argue, this feeling is largely irrational).

    Here it should be noted that Wikipedia is not intended for men—but it is intended for adults. Not participating due to the (usually) imagined feeling that one is not welcome, is not adult behaviour.

    Further, the question must be raised whether this is actually the explanation. Consider alternatives (which all match my experiences) like men being more likely to have a deep fascination with or knowledge on a particular topic (often referred to as “being a nerd”), simply having a greater drive for accomplishment, or being more prone to discuss bigger issues in a bigger forum (while women prefer smaller and more personal circles). Notably, the article it self claims “a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.”—to accuse e.g. “traditions of the computer world” is, then, absurd. To claim that it would be a minority issue does also not pan out—this might have been true for Wikipedia (where men could have had an advantage through a greater interest in computers) alone, but seeing that the same numbers apply where there has been no such entry barrier for quite some time, we would have to postulate explanations that are implausible from an Occamian view.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Occam’s razor remains a well respected proposition despite overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work in practice.

    Nearly every “simple” explanation the natural sciences came up with during the modern (Bacon – pre-Heisenberg period) has since been dismissed, inevitably due to its oversimplifications. Yet those in the natural sciences continue to hang on to the proposition.

    This yearning for simplicity makes one question the complexity of thinking those in the sciences are actually capable of.


    February 5, 2011 at 7:43 pm

  2. What evidence would that be? If you, misleadingly, think of the switch from classical physics to relativity and quantums,that is a different issue, namely needing more complex explanations to explain a more complex set of observations. (And still with the hope of eventually finding a simpler explanation.)

    Apart from that, I suspect that you misunderstand how Occam’s Razor works: Firstly, it is not a scientific law or logical rule, but a heuristic to find starting points, assign the burden of proof, and checking for plausibility. The hypotheses that are not compatible with Occam’s Razor are the more extraordinary and need the more extraordinary proof. Secondly, in the vast majority of the cases it is used in, it is correct. Say e.g. that you wake up one morning to find the world dressed in a white matter—is it snow or manna? By Occam’s Razor, snow is the far more likely explanation, which does not requiring divine intervention—and the one that will almost always be correct. (Further, in those cases where it is not snow, manna is still unlikely to be the correct explanation. Vulcanic ash, e.g., has a greater possibility than manna.) Thirdly, as implied above, Occam’s Razor is not typically used to positively pick one explanation (here it could indeed have weaknesses), but to rule the less plausible explanations out.


    February 6, 2011 at 12:33 am

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