When we saw Noam Cohen’s January 2011 New York Times article about Wikipedia’s large gender gap, we wondered what light we could shed on the questions and observations raised by Mr. Cohen and the results of the Wikimedia Foundation’s 2009 survey. Drawing upon the experience and the data sets that we’ve accumulated while researching Wikipedia and other online communities for the past decade, we explored Wikipedia’s gender imbalance and wrote a paper about our findings. We’ve recently heard that our paper has been accepted for presentation at WikiSym 2011.

Look below the jump for a summary of our findings. For those who are interested in more details, the full paper is available here on our publications list.

WP:Clubhouse? An Exploration of Wikipedia’s Gender Imbalance

A scientific exploration of gender imbalance in Wikipedia
Accepted for publication in ACM WikiSym 2011.

Authors: Shyong (Tony) K. Lam, Anuradha Uduwage, Zhenhua Dong, Shilad Sen, David R. Musicant, Loren Terveen, John Riedl

GroupLens Research
University of Minnesota

Shyong Lam, lam@cs.umn.edu
John Riedl, riedl@cs.umn.edu, 612 624-7372

Extended abstract

Wikipedia has rapidly become an invaluable destination for millions of information-seeking users. However, media reports and Wikimedia Foundation surveys suggest an important challenge: only a small fraction of Wikipedia’s legion of volunteer editors are female. In addition, anecdotal evidence suggests that the disparity may have led to a deficiency in Wikipedia’s coverage of topics of particular interest to females. For example, in a January 2011 New York Times article, Noam Cohen pointed out that Wikipedia’s coverage of topics like friendship bracelets or “Sex and the City” pales in comparison to that of toy soldiers or “The Sopranos”.

In our work, we present a scientific exploration of gender imbalance in the English Wikipedia’s population of editors. Using self-reported gender information from over 110,000 editors, we explore three broad areas related to the gender gap.

First, we look at the nature of the imbalance itself at a high level. Our analysis confirms the presence of a substantial gender disparity: only 16% of new editors joining Wikipedia during 2009 were female! To make matters worse, female editors leave Wikipedia much sooner than their male counterparts: females made just 9% of the edits made by the editors who joined in 2009. By contrast, in most areas of social media, the gender gap has nearly disappeared or has even reversed: females now outnumber males on Facebook and Twitter. Despite this trend, we find that Wikipedia’s gender gap has shown no sign of closing over the past five years.

The second area of focus considers the effects of the imbalance on Wikipedia. Our findings show that Wikipedia articles about topics of particular interest to female editors are significantly shorter than “male” articles. Furthermore, we found that Wikipedia’s coverage of movies with female-skewed audiences is lower quality than its coverage of male-skewed movies. Overall, Wikipedia seems to be growing in a way that is biased toward topics of interest to males.

Another way the gender gap affects Wikipedia is that females seem to be particularly engaged in the community-building activities on the site. For instance, our analysis shows that of editors who have substantial levels of editing experience, females are significantly more likely than males to become administrators. We believe that addressing the gender gap is a way for Wikipedia to meet its increasing needs for leadership.

Third, we analyze the role of gender in conflict among Wikipedia’s editors. The data indicate that articles that females tend to edit are twice as likely to be about controversial or contentious topics. In addition, female editors are significantly more likely to have their early contributions undone by their fellow editors, and to be subject to an indefinite block (a preventative measure used in situations deemed to involve “significant disruption […] or major breaches of policy”). Taken together, these findings hint at a culture that may be resistant to female participation.

We hope this research contributes to a richer understanding of the challenges caused by Wikipedia’s sizable gender gap, and can be a first step to addressing those challenges.

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