Wikipedia – a man's world?
On Wikipedia, fewer women write and edit content than men. We talked to Eszter Hargittai about the reasons for this disparity. She is professor at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich, where she heads the Internet Use and Society division.
Wikipedia is one of the world’s most popular websites and has ousted multi-volume encyclopedias from bookshelves everywhere. Its approach has started a new era of sharing knowledge, because Wikipedia users write and edit the content themselves. However, some people contribute more to Wikipedia than others. The gender gap is particularly striking.
More men than women contribute content to Wikipedia. How big is this gender gap?
Eszter Hargittai: In the United States, around 25 per cent of Wikipedia editors and contributors are female. However, it is difficult to estimate the size of the gender gap on a global scale, because there are huge differences between countries. In most African countries, for example, a much smaller percentage of women have access to the internet than in Europe. So we have got a very different situation there. Globally, the gap is estimated to be around 20 per cent female and 80 per cent male contributors.
Your research focuses on the reasons for this gap. Which are your most important findings?
Eszter Hargittai: Skills matter more than gender. People will only contribute to Wikipedia when they know how to do it. It is surprising that it is not so much Wikipedia-specific skills that matter but general internet skills. Because women tend to have fewer internet skills than men, the gender gap is actually largely a skills gap.
Obviously, these skills are closely related to education. We have seen in our research that people with a college degree usually have more internet skills than less educated persons.
How difficult is it to contribute content to Wikipedia?
Eszter Hargittai: Editing an entry is not a huge task as long as you know it is possible and know to look for the Edit link; however, starting a new entry is anything but easy and too often, this is a huge barrier. I think there is still some work here for the Wikimedia Foundation.
Why do girls and women still have fewer internet skills?
Eszter Hargittai: Girls are still not encouraged in the same way as boys to explore technology. Although using the internet is not about coding or hardware technology, there are nonetheless technical aspects associated with it, which take time to master. Women usually have less leisure time than men because they still tend to be primarily responsible for domestic and family tasks so they have less time to spend online with fewer opportunities to develop their skills, and consequently less know-how to produce content.
In many parts of the world, today’s young generation has grown up with this technology. Will they quickly change the patterns which you just described?
Eszter Hargittai: In several studies I and others have done, findings suggest that young people by far do not have the high-level internet skills they are assumed to have. We therefore need to invest much more in their digital literacy and include internet skills in school curricula on a much broader scale.
We should also focus more on older people as an important target group, because they usually have more leisure time than adults at other life stages. Although they tend to lag behind others in internet skills, this can be addressed through more support.
Why does it matter that predominantly men produce content on Wikipedia?
Eszter Hargittai: Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites worldwide and has an enormous reach. But what matters even more is that people use Wikipedia primarily to acquire knowledge. So Wikipedia has the potential to shape their knowledge! They find less content on issues that are more relevant for women than for men.
But here again, gender is not the only relevant factor. Certain types of people are more likely to contribute to Wikipedia than others and their contributions represent their particular interests. For example, there are incredibly detailed entries on Star Wars, but you find much less information about something like the solar eclipses of the 20th century.
How did you get to your results?
Eszter Hargittai: It is hard to obtain relevant data. Obviously, only looking at the community which already contributes to Wikipedia is problematic as such an approach will have already missed out on those who don’t. With my collaborator Aaron Shaw, we therefore addressed the general US population in our survey, which included over 1,500 adults aged 18 years and older.
We measured their general internet skills through an established survey item that askes respondents to rate their level of understanding of several Internet-related terms. We also asked some multiple-choice questions specifically about Wikipedia. One of these allowed us to establish whether people knew that Wikipedia is a site that can be edited by them. 68 per cent knew this. The gender difference, while not huge, was nonetheless a statistically significant difference: 71.5 per cent of male participants were familiar with this editing option and 65 per cent of the women.
Based on your findings, which issues need to be addressed as a high priority?
Eszter Hargittai: We certainly have to provide more people – including those with lower levels of education – with broader computer skills. More research is needed to find the best ways to achieve this. In addition, providers of sites such as Wikipedia should increasingly draw on the broader population when assessing the usability of their systems and less on computer-literate people. Hopefully, this will lower the barrier for women to share their knowledge on Wikipedia and in other internet forums.
Let’s close the digital gender gap
How can the Wikipedia gender gap be reduced? Do you have any ideas? Or do you already have some experience in promoting women’s digital participation? Please share your stories in the comments!