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The Sexists at the Top of Wikipedia

23 Apr, 2015
On April 5, 60 Minutes ran a special on Wikipedia, called Wikimania. It was soft stuff. The presenter, Morley Safer, glossed over many of the the site’s problems, presenting the site and its contributors as a slightly weird and harmless cult. But one thing stood out – the incredible sexism of Sue Gardner, the Executive Director of the site from 2006 to 2014, and Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder and spokesperson.

It’s well known that Wikipedia has a contributor ‘Gender Gap’. A survey in 2010 said that the site had only 6% female contributors, others say up to 15%, depending on what you read. This is despite a huge amount of discussion about the Gender Gap on Wikipedia and on external sites, such as the New York Times: Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.

The Gap has led to a host of initiatives trying to get more women to contribute to the encyclopedia. In the NYT article, Gardner set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25% by 2015. She failed miserably.

Symptom or Cause

Much has been said about why the Gender Gap exists. In a 2011 blog post, Gardner (Nine Reasons Why Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia) gives nine reasons why Wikipedia is unappealing to women. I have rearranged the order slightly.

Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because:

  • the editing interface isn’t sufficiently user-friendly
  • they aren’t sufficiently self-confident, and editing Wikipedia requires a lot of self-confidence
  • they are conflict-averse and don’t like Wikipedia’s sometimes-fighty culture
  • the information they bring to Wikipedia is too likely to be reverted or deleted
  • they find its overall atmosphere misogynist
  • they find Wikipedia culture to be sexual in ways they find off-putting
  • social relationships and a welcoming tone are important to them, and Wikipedia offers fewer opportunities for that than other sites
  • women whose primary language has grammatical gender, find being addressed by Wikipedia as male, is off-putting
  • they are too busy

At first glance this list seems plausible, but it’s important to note that the first eight reasons are symptoms, not causes. I will talk more about the reasons these symptoms occur later in the post.

Given the magnitude of the problem, and the seeming willingness to try to understand and fix it, one would think that Gardner and Wales would have prepared better answers for 60 Minutes.

Safer: Rank and file Wikipedians today are still mainly men, reflecting the tech world at large.

Gardner: Women are less likely to kinda geek out at their computer for 10, 20, 40 hours. I mean, there’s a reason that the stereotype of the hacker is a guy in a filthy T-shirt eating Doritos, right? Like, that’s hard. A woman is less likely to get social permission to be in a dirty T-shirt eating Doritos.

Safer: The gender imbalance was at the heart of a significant internal dispute at Wikipedia.

Wales: When William and Kate got married – the royal wedding – someone created an entry about Kate Middleton’s dress. And somebody nominated it for deletion. And some of the arguments were, you know, effectively, “This is stupid. It’s just a dress. How can you have an encyclopedia entry about a dress?”

Safer (voiceover): Wales intervened, pointing out that there are thousands of articles about computers and software programs.

Wales: And we don’t think anything about that, “cause we’re a bunch of computer geeks”. So we decided to keep it. But there was an interesting moment in that debate, where people were saying “Oh, I don’t know about this, therefore it’s not important.” And that is bias. And that is something we have to be careful about.

Deconstruction

Let’s break that down:

Gardner: Women are less likely (than men) to kinda geek out at their computer for 10, 20, 40 hours.

Gardner sets up a false equivalence by comparing all women to some men. She implies that Wikipedia contributors need to be “geeks” who must have a huge amount of spare time to contribute.

In fact, neither of these is true. You can spend as much or as little time editing Wikipedia as you like, and you don’t need to be a geek of any kind to contribute.

Gardner: I mean, there’s a reason that the stereotype of the hacker is a guy in a filthy T-shirt eating Doritos, right?

Next she doubles down on the geek image, saying that Wikipedia is created by hackers, despite most people’s image of hackers as men who know a lot about computers, and that they illegally break into computers. In Gardner’s mind, the stereotypical Wikipedia contributor is filthy, unhealthy, male hacker eating Doritos – for 10-40 hours at a time.

Is this really the image she wants to project of the people who make up one of the world’s leading sources of knowledge? This is a smear on the people who actually contribute, who at least according to the 60 Minutes footage, look fairly clean.

Usually, you would expect that a person making this kind of argument would then say, “But no! We are different from that!” Something like: “People think that Wikipedia is made only by dirty computer geeks, but there are actually lots of women, who contribute to all kinds of pages.”

Instead, Gardner makes things worse.

Gardner: Like, that’s hard. A woman is less likely to get social permission to be in a dirty T-shirt eating Doritos.

She confirms that the contributors are, in fact, filthy Dorito-eating male hackers, but they are not the problem. The problem is that women don’t have “permission” to be as dirty as them!

According to Gardner, the reason there’s a Gender Gap is because women can’t get permission to wear Dorito-stained T-shirts. In Gardner’s world, its ok for men to wear dirty, filthy clothes, but women don’t have permission to be dirty. And because they can’t be dirty, they can’t contribute.

In other words, women can only edit Wikipedia if they take on the same dirty behavior as men. But who is giving this permission to dress down? Men? Society? Why does she think women need any kind of permission to edit Wikipedia at all? It’s completely nuts.

Jimmy Doubles Down

So let’s see how enlightened Jimmy Wales is. Remember, this interview was broadcast in April 2015, not in the 1960s, and in real life, not an episode of Mad Men.

Safer: The gender imbalance was at the heart of a significant internal dispute at Wikipedia.

Wales: When William and Kate got married – the royal wedding – someone created an entry about Kate Middleton’s dress. And somebody nominated it for deletion,

Four years after the wedding, with all that outreach, and all Wales can cite is an article about a wedding dress? The implication here is that women are only interested in women’s stuff: dresses, and perhaps make-up, and shoes.

No mention of the various programs to add more women scientists, more women poets, more women in general. No mention of women trying to edit articles about science and history. A dress. That’s Wales’ go-to example.

Wales:…and some of the arguments were, you know, effectively, “This is stupid. It’s just a dress. How can you have an encyclopedia entry about a dress?”

The question here is how did Wales build a site that had a significant part of the users that would think that way?

Safer: Wales intervened, pointing out that there are thousands of articles about computers and software programs.

Again the false focus on technology. I have very rarely used Wikipedia to check up on computers or software programs — that’s what review sites are for. Like most people, I use it to find information about people and things. Y’know, like a normal encyclopedia.

Wales: And we don’t think anything about that, “cause we’re a bunch of computer geeks”.

Wales joins Gardner tripling down on the typical Wikipedia users as “computer geeks”. Not only that, but computer geeks who don’t think about other viewpoints. One has to wonder why Wales is presenting this image of the contributors.

While most people editing Wikipedia do so on a computer – you don’t have to be a “geek”, a computer expert, or a geek in any way, to edit the site. In fact, expertise in a topic is looked down upon in Wikipedia. In most cases, people are simply adding and comparing sources. Much of the work is spell-checking.

And note the present tense — this is what they think now.

Wales: So we decided to keep it.

How generous! Four years ago, Wales and his gang of Dorito-stained hackers decided that an article about a princess’s dress should be kept in. The implications of this are obvious: women’s topics (as defined by men) are going to be vetted by men.

Wales: But there was an interesting moment in that debate, where people were saying “Oh, I don’t know about this, therefore, it’s not important.” And that is bias. And that is something we have to be careful about.

Translation: But there was an interesting moment in that debate (by men), where people (men) were saying “Oh, I don’t know about this (female thing), therefore, it’s not important.” And that is (male) bias. And that is something we (men) have to be careful about.

But there’s nothing that says how Wales fixed the problem. No mention of how procedures were improved to include women. Nothing to say how bias is prevented. No updates about what has happened in the four years since. Because nothing has actually changed.

Wales’ attitude is typical of someone who doesn’t know he is part of the problem. In another segment, Gardner describes Wales as the “Queen Mom in the parade”. It’s an apt comparison: He sits at the top like a distant monarch, waving at the men who cheer as he passes in his gilded carriage, totally unaware of the women they crowd out.

As I like to say, Wikipedia editors talking about the Gender Gap, are like the lions at the watering hole wondering why the zebras aren’t thirsty.

It’s the software, stupid

Here’s the truth: Wikipedia can never be inclusive because the core wiki software is designed to give power to the powerful. In Wikipedia, might is right, and the biggest power group by far is men. There is no way for women or minorities to tilt the playing field in their favor.

But software is a choice. Software is simply a set of commands to do things. If you want software to draw a line on the screen, you program it to do that. If you want software to work for a diverse group of users, then you make it happen, by designing the software for inclusivity.

But Wikipedia was not designed by Wales — it was given to him as an off-the-shelf solution that could possibly work to create an encyclopedia. It was never designed as an inclusive system, and as it grew, it was never updated to give balance to the different types of people who could use it.

Now, due to the huge external success of the site, Wikipedia’s software is seen as perfect by insiders. Instead of understanding that the cause of Wikipedia’s problems is the software, they focus on the symptoms.

Instead of blaming the software’s flaws, they blame the people who use the software. If only we could get rid of the sexists, the harassers, the abusers, the PR people, the vandals, then our perfect system would be pure again. But it’s the software that lets all of these groups flourish.

Gardner’s reasons why women don’t participate, are all symptoms of bad software design. Women don’t contribute to Wikipedia, NOT because they aren’t confident, or are conflict averse, or need a welcoming tone, but because Wikipedia is designed to give and maintain power to its first group of users, who were men. It doesn’t help that Wikipedis is designed to benefit those in that group who are the loudest, most fanatical, and those most likely to abuse power

Women don’t edit Wikipedia, NOT because their edits are more likely to be reverted or because it’s misogynist, or sexist, but because nothing has been done in the software to stop harassment and bullying for both men and women.

Women don’t contribute to Wikipedia, NOT because the interface is bad — but because Gardner, in her seven years as Executive Director, didn’t change the interface to make it easier for all users.

In fact, other than some window dressing, Gardner, who describes herself as a “Feminist Wikipedian” didn’t do anything to improve the software to include more women contributors.

In all the time Jimmy Wales has been involved with the site, from co-founding it, through today, he has done nothing to fix the software to include women. And it shows by the way he talks about the issue. Women are an afterthought.

The question is whether they know what the problem is, and won’t fix it, or whether they are completely ignorant of how their own site works. If it’s the first, then they are hypocrites, talking about diversity while doing nothing. If it’s the latter, then they are incompetents who don’t deserve their positions.

The promise of the Internet is that it can break down power structures. Instead, Wikipedia is a system designed to give and maintain power for early users, almost all of whom are men. And the people at the top don’t seem to know why it happens, and are not prepared to make the hard choices to change it.

How do I know this?

Because this site, Newslines, even though it creates broadly similar crowdsourced content to Wikipedia’s news and biography pages, has had up to 80% women and minority participation. The main differences being a software design that stops entrenched editors taking “ownership” of pages, randomizes the editors who approve posts, and allows for fully anonymized assessments of edits. Combined these measures stop groups of editors ganging up to fight other users and stop harassment of individual users. The other difference is that we pay our writers, and when people are paid they don’t want to waste endless time fighting and instead, concentrate on getting the job done. For more on Wikipedia’s flawed software design read my posts: Wikipedia’s 13 Deadly Sins

What they should have said

Safer: Rank and file Wikipedians today are still mainly men, reflecting the tech world at large.

Gardner: You don’t have to be technical to edit Wikipedia — the site is open to everyone who loves knowledge. It doesn’t take long for people to learn how to add information to the site, and we have a great community that helps anyone who wants to participate.

In fact, most people simply start by fixing typos or making small changes. Women are welcome to add information and edit any page. We have done significant outreach to attract women over the past few years and value their contributions in all areas of the site.

We believe that the more women, men and minorities work together on pages, the better the site will be for everyone.

Safer: The gender imbalance has caused significant internal disputes at Wikipedia.

Wales: The original software we had when we started ten years ago wasn’t that great, but we improved it so that everyone can contribute their knowledge easily, without the fear of harassment minorities and women often experience online.

Over the past few years, women and men, working together, have made great contributions to pages about science, art and history. This is especially important for groups who have been under-represented in traditional encyclopedias.

We believe that an inclusive environment that attracts all kinds of people makes the encyclopedia much better for everyone. After all, we wouldn’t want to be in the situation where women — 50% of our readers — feel they are getting something served up that’s predominantly written by men, edited by men, and approved by men.

Ok, I added that last sentence in. But how would men feel if the encyclopedia was written 90% by women? How credible do they think it would be? Well, that’s the feeling women have.

And now to the strangest part of this story…

Nobody Cares

I’m sure you all saw the headline: “Geeks, Not Women, Welcome At Wikipedia”. “Jimmy Wales 60 Minutes Gender Fail”. “Wales Wedding Dress Disaster”. No? Neither did I. That’s because there wasn’t a single article, blog post, or even tweet about what Gardner and Wales said on 60 Minutes.

“So what?”, you might say. “Nobody cares”. Well, I care, and you should too.

An encyclopedia written and edited by white men simply cannot represent the “sum of all human knowledge”. Instead, we are left with an encyclopedia that has thousands of pages on female porn stars, and few on female poets. Pages and pages on video games, and hardly anything on female scientists.

Consider if Apple’s Tim Cook had made these statements. “The people who use our computers are dirty hackers. Women might like to use them, but they don’t have permission to be like them.”

He would have been hammered by women’s groups and the tech press, forced to apologize and may even have lost his position (For example, Mozilla’s Brendan Eich, resigned after he gave money to oppose the legalization of gay marriage in California).

But there hasn’t been a single report about Gardner or Wales’ comments anywhere.

Why does the world’s fifth largest site get a free pass? Perhaps there are three reasons:

1. A press that is generally uncritical about Wikipedia’s underlying problems

Too many people are in awe of what Wikipedia represents and what it could be, instead of what it actually is. This cult-like fawning extends to Wales, Gardner, and other senior WMF (WikiMedia Foundation) figures, who should be under far more scrutiny for their statements and actions.

Isn’t it time the press started to write more about the actual problems of Wikipedia instead of holding it up as a model for collaboration? What kind of “collaborative” model excludes so much of the population?

2. The WMF is not accountable to the market

The WMF is not interested in how the content of Wikipedia is made, as long as the donations — none of which go to the contributors of the site — keep rolling in.

Last year they raised over $50 million, even though it already had $50 million in the bank. Instead of money going to the people who write and edit the site, it goes to First Class travel, expensive offices and a huge team of overpaid and underperforming engineers.

Even WMF insiders think the claims that the encyclopedia is running out of cash are alarmist and misleading.

However, the main problem is a lack of accountability to the market, allowing Gardner and Wales to continue to make sexist comments, and take no action, with no fear of backlash. But how many women would continue to donate, knowing that the site is built to exclude them, and that nothing has been done to improve the conditions of women contributors?

3. A lack of passion about the site from anyone

Women contributors are tired of pushing and getting nowhere. Editors, in general, are tired of harassment, arcane editing processes and arbitrary rules, abuse and harassment. People are tired trying to have their say. It’s too hard. They’ve given up trying to improve the site.

The number of editors is declining, and as it does, hoaxes, incorrect information, vandalism and spam are increasing, creating a trust death spiral. This can’t be fixed, because to do so, will require a complete overhaul of the site — something that just doesn’t seem possible.

The fault can be traced directly to Wales and Gardner, who over many years, decided to ride the gravy train, instead of updating the site with the tools to match its status.

What Wales and Gardner said is inexcusable, but their lack of action to create an inclusive environment is even worse. Combined, they give a clear message: Women are not welcome on Wikipedia.


For more on how poor software design is the root of Wikipedia’s problems, please read: Wikipedia’s 13 Deadly Sins

Mark Devlin is the founder and CEO of Newslines, a new crowdsourced news search engine. Find out more about him here, and more about Newslines here. Click here to follow Mark on Twitter.

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