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May 19, 2014

Women work to change the culture of the free online encyclopedia “Wikipedia”


The free online encyclopedia “Wikipedia” has come under scrutiny over a lack of female representation and participation on the website.

A study published in 2010 by the United Nations University and by the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, discovered that less than 13 percent of the site’s nearly 75,000 contributors were women. The same study found that the average Wikipedia editor was male and in his mid-20s.

This has led to a skew in the information that appears on Wikipedia, where critics say that women’s stories and interests are underrepresented.

Since the study, Wikipedia’s female editors have pushed for higher representation on the site.

“We definitely want to increase the number of women. But just increasing the number of women isn’t necessarily going to improve the fact that content on Wikipedia itself is skewed,” said Adrianne Wadewitz, a dedicated Wikipedian and one of the site’s top 15 contributors of high-quality content.

Fewer women contributors, she said, inevitably influences what ends up on Wikipedia. One example, noted by a media columnist from the New York Times in 2011, is the lengthy descriptions in Wikipedia about ‘The Sopranos’ compared to the much shorter entry for the more female oriented ‘Sex and the City.’

To help balance the information on the site, groups have organized “Edit-a-Thons,” where experienced Wikipedians and first-timers get together to help each other write new content. Edit-a-thons are not gender-exclusive, but increasingly women are recruiting other women to participate.

“I know something about how the first encyclopedias were developed in the 18th century. And those encyclopedias almost completely excluded the history of women,” said Wadewitz. “When we’re talking both to Wikipedians and people outside of Wikipedia, we say, ‘Look, if we want to include all of these other narratives besides the typical narrative that we usually tell of dead white men, we’ve gotta get it in there now.’”

Warm up questions
  1. What is “crowd-sourcing”?
  2. What do you use Wikipedia for? Do you consider it reliable?
  3. What are the pros and cons of a volunteer crowd-sourced encyclopedia like Wikipedia?
Discussion questions
  1. Currently, there are around nine male Wikipedia editors for every female editor.  Do you think that has an effect on what is written about? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think that there are other groups that are underrepresented on Wikipedia? Who might they be and how does their lack of representation shape content?
Writing prompt

Take on the role of a Wikipedia editor and write a two paragraph entry for a critical event in American history.  How does your background and point of view influence your description of the event?  What did you include in your entry?  What did you leave out?

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