Monday, January 31, 2011

Wikipedia's Absent Women

You may have read this NYT story today:
In 10 short years, Wikipedia has accomplished some remarkable goals. More than 3.5 million articles in English? Done. More than 250 languages? Sure.
But another number has proved to be an intractable obstacle for the online encyclopedia: surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.
About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University.
Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but she is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.
As the article points out, that percentage is not terribly different from the percentage of contributors to Op-Eds and the like who are women. The overall reasons for that are not something I wish to write about here (I have done that earlier and will do again). What I want to talk about is this idea:
The notion that a collaborative, written project open to all is so skewed to men may be surprising. After all, there is no male-dominated executive team favoring men over women, as there can be in the corporate world; Wikipedia is not a software project, but more a writing experiment — an “exquisite corpse,” or game where each player adds to a larger work.
But because of its early contributors Wikipedia shares many characteristics with the hard-driving hacker crowd, says Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. This includes an ideology that resists any efforts to impose rules or even goals like diversity, as well as a culture that may discourage women.
“It is ironic,” he said, “because I like these things — freedom, openness, egalitarian ideas — but I think to some extent they are compounding and hiding problems you might find in the real world.”
Adopting openness means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,” he said, “so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem.” Mr. Reagle is also the author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.”
Emphasis is mine. My experience on the Internets is that women indeed do get more flack. If you don't believe me, pick a handle that is clearly female and use it consistently for a month or so to comment in all sorts of places. Then check the results.

But I do love that beautiful academic definition of openness towards misogynists! I wonder if they are equally open towards racists?

What is going on at Wikipedia is most likely two things: First, there is the first-mover advantage. Those who arrived early settled in, got power and influence and now regard the place as their home. Those who come later must "earn" their place in the community. This is something that can be observed in many different places on the Internet, and it is mostly due to the fact that people work in groups, even in cyberspace. The group of home-boyz can keep individuals out fairly easily by making it very unpleasant to try to enter.

Second, there's a misunderstanding that a chaotically open setting necessarily leads to democracy. What goes on in non-moderated comments threads all over the mainstream media tells you that the outcome of that chaos is not some sort of a fair and egalitarian process. It can be a warped and horrible caricature of free speech, with "astro-turfed" attack groups taking over a controversial topic, or it can become a place where few "regular" commentators swim about, making sure that nobody else can comment without being viciously attacked. In general, too, the most extreme individuals stay and end up ruling the place. That is one reason why so many of the early "feminist" chat sites were killed. One fairly conservative site was totally taken over by misogynists, for instance. (Note that none of this is about the wonderful comments threads of my blog!)

A better parable for what goes on in some non-moderated sites on the net is one of a public square where groups of young men hang out, passing the bottle and glaring at by-passers from under their brows. So come on in, feminists, and debate! We shall see who can yell the loudest.

This is not intended as a full explanation for the scarcity of women as Wikipedia's editors, but it IS one reason, especially when it comes to topics on which the MRAs (who are already among the editors) feel strongly.

Take this article as an example: It's about gendercide, the killing of individuals of one gender because of their gender. The article begins with a quote:
By analogy, gendercide would be the deliberate extermination of persons of a particular sex (or gender). Other terms, such as "gynocide" and "femicide," have been used to refer to the wrongful killing of girls and women. But "gendercide" is a sex-neutral term, in that the victims may be either male or female. There is a need for such a sex-neutral term, since sexually discriminatory killing is just as wrong when the victims happen to be male. The term also calls attention to the fact that gender roles have often had lethal consequences, and that these are in important respects analogous to the lethal consequences of racial, religious, and class prejudice.
Thus, we move almost directly to the killing of boys and men because they are boys and men, and, indeed, the next section of the article is androcide. I quote:
Androcide is the systematic killing of men for various reasons, usually cultural. Androcide may happen during war to reduce an enemy's potential pool of soldiers.

Androcide as a common practice continued in ancient times. Mythological accounts of the Greek takeover of Miletus in circa 9th century BCE have the legendary son of Poseidon leading a massacre of the men of Miletus and settling the city in the Milesian men's stead.[2]

Biblical androides include the Massacre of the Innocents recounted in the Book of Matthew although many modern scholars consider that this may be apocryphal [3], and the avenging of Dinah.
I quote in such length to point out that we are now half-way down the article, have so far been given only mythical evidence of androcide and an expanded definition of androcide which reaches well past the idea that gender itself is a cause in these killings.

Only now does the article provide any evidence of "androcide":
Pakistan targeted male intellectuals for extermination in the erstwhile province of East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) during the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities.[4] Pol Pot executed many men in Cambodia, resulting in a large percentage of Cambodia's population afterwards being women.[5] During the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots men were targeted overwhelmingly on account of them being breadwinners of the family.[5] More recent examples include the 1988 Anfal campaign against Kurdish men and boys[6][7] in Iraq and the Srebrenica massacre of Bosniak men and boys on July 12, 1995.[8][9]
After all this we get six lines on femicide, the killing of women or girls because of their gender.

There is so much wrong with this article. The focus of the piece is on the killing of men, whatever the reason for that might be (that they were intellectuals, breadwinners, frightening opponents) and the actual killing of people for nothing BUT their sex is given six lines.

Yet imagine trying to fix this article! Clearly someone has written it with the slant on purpose, and clearly that someone would not simply let the article be changed.