[Gendergap] Wikipedia's gender gap: discussion on Metafilter

Sue Gardner sgardner at wikimedia.org
Thu Feb 3 19:05:12 UTC 2011

On 2 February 2011 21:30, jessamyn c. west <jessamyn at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Ole, could you invite Jessamyn? It would be terrific if she would
>> spend a little time here :-)
> Hi!
> Ole invited me and I'm happy to stop in and say hello. My full-time
> job is working at MetaFilter as a community manager or whatever you
> call it. When I'm being fancy I'm COO, when I'm being informal I'm a
> mod.

Jessamyn, welcome: thanks for coming here. I "know" you from
Metafilter: you are great there. And I also liked your piece for the
Times :-)

> our M/F ratio is
> more like 60/40 m/f.
> I credit this both to some aggressive moderation in what is otherwise
> a lightly moderated site [we delete rape jokes and I'll take the heat
> when people flip out about censorship] some cultivation of female
> members and some visible norm-setting among all the moderators for how
> we want the community to run. We also have a Q&A part of the site, Ask
> MetaFilter which has probably more female contributors than male ones.
> Though I am the only female moderator out of the three of us--we also
> have one additional male programmer and one part time mod from a
> different time zone who is also male--we're all very very on message
> that we don't want MetaFilter to be a place where random drive-by
> racism and sexism is okay. That said, this is easy to enforce because
> we're a small site with a small mod team.

So I would conclude that the lesson for Wikimedia in that, is that if
the community makes something a priority, and continually reinforces
it, then culture change can be achieved. I find this heartening
because I think the people at Metafilter are fairly similar to the
people at Wikimedia: speaking super-loosely, both groups are very
smart, kind of stubborn and a little fighty, pride themselves on being
rational and not uncritically buying into received/conventional
wisdom, and are iconoclastic by nature.

((( Kind of like the Less Wrong community too. Essentially --- part of
what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls “the
crowd.” Not everyone at Wikimedia is all those things, but I'd say we
skew towards them. )))

So I find Jessamyn's story encouraging. And it seems to me that the
people here might be able to take on informal leadership roles in
helping moderate the community overall, to achieve better openness to

What's tough though is that the conversation on Metafilter happens in
one place (or I guess several places: Ask Metafilter, Metafilter,
Metatalk, etc.) -- whereas on the Wikimedia projects there is no
single gathering point for discussion: discussion takes place on a
multitude of talk pages and user pages and other places such as IRC,
mailing lists, etc. Which means the task of influencing discussion is
less easy.

And our spaces themselves, to an extent, grow out of a gendered place.
For example, someone said earlier in this thread that IRC might be a
good tool for offering coaching/guidance/support to new people... I
liked the impulse behind the suggestion, but I actually think IRC is
unlikely to provide solutions for us. Because IRC itself is so heavily
gendered: it's a tool used by "people like us" (see
technophile/Silicon-Valley-programmer etc., above), and it's a tool
NOT used by the people we want to attract. I remember reading a
critique of IRC on one of the geek women type blogs/spaces, where
someone said she tends to stay out of IRC chat rooms, because they are
rife with boys making sex jokes. Wikimedia's IRC chat rooms, in my
experience, are much less like that than non-Wikimedia chat rooms, but
still: the line of argument resonated for me. I'd be really surprised
if IRC usage in general didn't skew heavily male.

I think it would be helpful for us to hone in a little more directly
on what the actual problem is, so we can develop solutions targeted to
exactly what we want to achieve. We need a kind of 'theory of the

Something like this:

We want women to contribute to Wikipedia because we want Wikipedia to
contain the sum of all human knowledge, not just the stuff that men
know. Currently some women contribute to Wikipedia, which is terrific,
but we want more. We're agnostic on what they contribute: women on
Wikipedia should write about whatever interests them, be it Barbie
dolls or feminist authors or nanotechnology. And we don't particularly
want to make assumptions about what might or might not interest women:
it's not necessary, and it can trigger lots of angry excited
conversation about gender differences, which is a distraction from the
actual recruitment itself.

Why don't women contribute? Partly it's because, for many reasons that
there's no point articulating because they're outside our control,
women tend to be less tech-centric than men, and they tend to see
technology as less "fun." This means that the hurdle of learning wiki
syntax is a higher barricade for (many) women, than it is for (many)
men. We're addressing that barricade --slowly, painfully-- through our
usability efforts. It is also true that women tend to have less free
time than men, and they tend to spend their free time less in solitary
pursuits. (And interestingly, anecdotally we hear that women
experience Wikipedia as a solitary experience rather than a communal
one, which is counter-intuitive and problematic.)

Once women learn wiki syntax, there are additional social/cultural
barricades. To be clear, these barricades affect men too, but they
seem to be disproportionately dissuading for women. The
social/cultural barricade is essentially: women (tend to) dislike
fighty cultures more than men. And the culture likely is experienced
by (many) women as fightier than it is for men --- just as I believe
for example Indian people experience Wikipedia as fightier than
Americans do. Basically, underrepresented groups have a tougher time
on Wikipedia than well-represented groups, because of our consensus
decisionmaking model. (Witness for example the discussion about
whether to name the Ganges article "Ganges" or "Ganga," in which
Indian enWP editors are getting squelched by non-Indian enWP editors.
Witness also Jessamyn's earlier "why bother" comment about drama and
conflict, and the myriad other feedback we've gotten from women on
describing --on Metafilter, Jezabel, and here-- their Wikipedia
editing experiences as exhausting, draining, boring.)

So to the extent that that's a reasonable theory about what's
happening, what do we do about it? Where can we focus our efforts, and
how can we help women who want to contribute and would be good

I have some ideas which I'll post later, and I would love to hear from
everyone here. I'm rushing to a meeting right now, so I've written
this super-fast and rough ...... but I'll be back later.

And again, thanks Jessamyn for joining us here. Your experience will I
think be invaluable. Metafilter is the only place I know of that has
successfully created a culture change like what we're aiming to do;
it's impressive and I think we can learn from it :-)


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