[Foundation-l] encouraging women's participation

Michael Snow wikipedia at verizon.net
Fri Jun 18 18:20:02 UTC 2010

Ryan Kaldari wrote:
> Gregory,
> I'm sorry if I misinterpreted your post, but it sounded very much like 
> you were saying that encyclopedia writing is a skill that is too 
> academic for women:
> "...general approaches which make Wikipedia more palatable to "average 
> people"... may have a greater impact at reducing gender imbalance than 
> female centric improvements... Though are limits to the amount of 
> main-streaming you can do of an academic activity such as encyclopaedia 
> writing."
> Perhaps you were not meaning to imply that women are too "average" to be 
> interested in academic activities. I'm glad to hear that isn't the case, 
> but I would encourage you to be more careful with your wording in the 
> future. There is a long history of scientific apologetics being used to 
> perpetuate sexism, racism, etc. Just look at the "science" of 
> phrenology, or more recently "The Bell Curve". Anyway, I don't want to 
> drag this thread into a debate on scientific -isms. I just wanted to 
> remind everyone that there are real steps that can be taken to address 
> the gender imbalance problem, regardless of any real or perceived gender 
> differences.
I think the valuable point Gregory had, which is obscured both by the 
sensitivity of the topic and the obscurity of the theoretical basis for 
the argument, is that there's quite a bit that can be done to encourage 
greater female participation that doesn't involve specifically targeting 
females. This need not (and should not) assume that women have less 
ability, so it's also important to use care in how we frame the 
discussion. But I think the academic performance of women in society 
generally amply demonstrates that there's nothing fundamental about a 
knowledge-sharing project - that being our ultimate aim - which would 
explain the kind of imbalance that exists in our community.

It is possible to theorize about biological differences like greater 
genetic variability as explanations, but for characteristics like gender 
that are so intimately connected to a social construction of the 
concept, it's largely impossible to truly isolate them and eliminate the 
social factors at play. That also makes it hard to talk about the 
subject without perilous characterizations and generalizations, but talk 
about it we must.

At risk of going in that direction, I could suggest that usability 
initiatives fit in very well with what Gregory was suggesting. Usability 
doesn't particularly have gender on the agenda, but it's possible to see 
that type of concern as somehow "female" in our society. To use a bit of 
gross stereotyping, one might consider it typically male to seek to 
demonstrate skill in mastering a challenging environment, and more 
typically female to seek to apply skill toward changing the environment 
to make it less challenging. The problem is partly that while from a 
neutral perspective, there's no particular reason to favor either of 
these skills, in practice we tend to be quite imbalanced, with social 
consequences that follow accordingly.

Another illustration are the cultural issues various people have 
highlighted here, such as hostility and tone of discussion. On the 
surface those are gender-neutral considerations, but because of how 
people are socialized, they have important consequences in reality. 
That's before we even get into problems where gender is more obviously 
implicated, like locker-room-type banter or casual objectification of 
women. This is why I think it's so important for us to examine our 
culture and figure out what we need to do to improve it.

--Michael Snow

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