Majority of Wikipedia editors are still men - so how is the online encyclopaedia addressing the issue?

Women are being encouraged to be Wikipedia editors at ‘edit-a-thons’  (Wikimedia Commons)
Women are being encouraged to be Wikipedia editors at ‘edit-a-thons’ (Wikimedia Commons)

More than a decade after a survey showed that only 13 per cent of the volunteers who edit Wikipedia are women, progress has been slow.

“It still feels like the majority of editors are men,” says Rachel Helps, a Wikipedian-in-residence at Brigham Young University Library.

“On the one hand, I feel like the gender of the editors I interact with shouldn’t matter on a granular level – I want to treat other editors the same, regardless of their gender.

“On the other hand, Wikipedia editors are a weird group, demographically, and the content of Wikipedia tends to reflect their interests. The old argument is that this is why the articles on battleships and videogames are so good.”

The proportion of so-called “Wikipedians” who identify as women is now around 15 per cent. During the 2010s, numerous efforts were made to welcome women to the site’s volunteer community, both by The Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organisation, and by grassroots campaigns. Those have yielded results, especially in the content itself. As of the end of February, almost 20 per cent of biography articles on English-language Wikipedia were about women. That compares to around 15.5 per cent in 2014.

Community organising of “edit-a-thons” is helping on this front. Attendees are getting more articles about women created and improving their quality and length. Kira Wisniewski, executive director of campaign Art+Feminism, says events like these can help get more people who wouldn’t normally edit Wikipedia interested.

“Anecdotally, the first Art+Feminism event for many participants is their first Wikipedia-editing experience ever,” she says. “And there have been numerous occasions when a first-time editor, attendee, or organiser then has gone on to establish a new Wikimedia user group. We are doing what we can to make the Wikiverse more accessible.”

If we increase the representation of women on Wikipedia, there will be more women who are reading Wikipedia and then, from there, they become editors

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight

While upping the diversity of contributors can help increase the diversity of topics covered by Wikipedia, the inverse might also be true, according to respected Wikipedian Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight.

The co-founder of WikiProject Women In Red, which involves editors of all genders in increasing representation of women’s lives and issues on Wikipedia, Goodknight has personally created thousands of articles and serves as a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation. She says the issue of women’s contribution to the site is multi-layered, but that the content itself cannot be ignored as a factor.

“A woman seeks information, she doesn’t find it on Wikipedia, but she sees it’s available somewhere else and so she looks somewhere else. So, if we increase the representation of women on Wikipedia [...], there will be more women who are reading Wikipedia and then from there they become editors.”

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, the co-founder of WikiProject Women In Red (Wikimedia Commons)
Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, the co-founder of WikiProject Women In Red (Wikimedia Commons)

Theories as to why women are under-represented range from a lack of time to being less confident that they have enough expertise.

At the centre of many discussions over the years has been the culture of the “talk page”, the discussion behind any Wikipedia article, where contributors can chat with each other about edits to the page. While many of these are civil, they can get heated, and even devolve into edit wars between contributors. Aversion to conflict and an impression of the site’s community as misogynistic were both cited as reasons why women don’t edit Wikipedia, by former Wikimedia Foundation director Sue Gardner.

“About once a year, I have interactions with other editors or subjects of pages that keep me up at night – but these have been with both men and women editors,” says Rachel Helps. “Generally, my fellow editors are helpful and friendly, but a few bad apples have made me dread editing on several occasions. I suspect this is common to most workplaces.”

The latest idea to tackle toxic talk pages is a Universal Code of Conduct, that was put together in 2020. It defines the expected standards of behaviour for Wikipedians, from engaging in constructive edits to refraining from insulting fellow editors.

This week, the Wikimedia Foundation’s board of trustees, which includes prominent Wikipedia contributors as well as founder Jimmy Wales, will consider new enforcement guidelines that lay out the consequences for those who break the rules. If agreed upon, the guidelines should make it easier to report violations of the code, and set up a committee to oversee complaints and appeals.

Amber Berson, a Wikipedian based in Canada who works on various projects including the Art+Feminism campaign, says the introduction of the code has been a positive step.

“It is still very early in the implementation process,” she says. “But my early impression is that, for active participants in the Wikipedia and Wikimedia communities, the development of the Universal Code of Conduct has signalled a positive shift towards more inclusive, equitable, and diverse leadership and, consequently, a safer platform for women and other historically marginalised voices within the Wikipedia movement.”

Stephenson-Goodknight is hopeful that it will be good for retention and recruitment of Wikipedians. “I think that editors as a whole are going to be staying rather than leaving, and hopefully more coming than ever before.”

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales looking for more female editors, perhaps? (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales looking for more female editors, perhaps? (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

If that’s the case, it should help broaden the ranks. The most recent data from 2020 shows that newcomers to Wikipedia editing are more likely to be women than their “tenured” counterparts who are longstanding contributors. But the site needs to hold onto those newbies to have any chance of changing the overall makeup.

There are some other bright spots. On a local level, Welsh language Wikipedia has already reached gender parity in terms of people with biography pages. And across the UK, “lead” volunteers – those who organise events and projects supporting Wikimedia’s work – are just as likely to be women as men.

But there is only so much Wikipedia and its network of volunteers can do, says Stephenson-Goodknight. Problems like other demands on women’s time, and their lack of access to technology in some parts of the world, are things that need to be addressed more broadly by society. The same goes for gender balance in the content.

She explained, “If society were to write more – historically and presently and in the future – about women, if journalists wrote as many paragraphs about a woman as is written about a man, there’d be more information that editors could put into Wikipedia articles. You know, we don’t come up with anything out of thin air.”