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Wikipedia and Gender

I had the opportunity to attend the 29th annual Computers & Writing Conference last month. In one memorable session, Leigh Gruwell of Miami University presented on “The Mechanization of Knowledge: Wikipedia’s Silenced Voices.”

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She explained that only 9-13% of Wikipedia’s editors are women. Given the prevalence of Wikipedia (it contains 30 million articles in 286 languages and is the sixth most visited site in the world), Gruwell contends that Wikipedia may not be as collaborative or as democratic as many assume.

Leigh’s presentation reminded me of a crucial element of engaging with digital technology: the ability to critically challenge and assess the increasingly invisible constraints placed on our use of the technology by its developers. It’s easy to feel grateful when our students are quickly able to engage with a digital tool without much instruction or reflection, but we must remember to push them to reflect and critique and question the tools that increasingly dominate their lives!

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Rosemary July 15, 2013, 1:55 pm

    An interesting point, Mary. Was she just pointing out the gender imbalance, or did she share thoughts on implications? Most interesting to me: did she have suggestions about how to rebalance or what the effect would be if we did so?

    • mkstewart July 17, 2013, 9:20 am

      Thanks, Rosemary! It was a very interesting session. Gruwell had been conducting interviews with the few women who were contributors; she didn’t really have suggestions for rebalancing–it was more to point out that even wikipedia, our poster child for collaboration, is a community with set rules that favors particular voices and silences others. One interesting implication is that wikipedia clings to this “encyclopedic” voice that delivers “objective truth,” and doesn’t leave a lot of room for more narrative or experiential delivery of information.

  • Bev Wilcox July 17, 2013, 4:45 pm

    As a female contributor to Wikipedia, I was surprised to learn this. My occasional interactions with Wikipedia editors have all been gender-blind, since contributor/editor handles are usually gender-neutral. I would be interested to know if the gender imbalance extends to contributors as well as editors, since editors usually emerge from the larger pool of contributors.
    Most students have no idea that it is possible to contribute to Wikipedia. Perhaps a way to address the gender imbalance in editors (and perhaps an accompanying age imbalance) would be for concerned individuals to take the time to recruit new contributors.

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