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The Worrying Consequences of the Wikipedia Gender Gap

Male editors dramatically outnumber female ones on Wikipedia and that could be dramatically influencing the online encyclopedia’s content, according to a new study

There was a time when the internet was dominated by men but in recent years that gap has dissolved. Today, surfers are just as likely to be male as female. And in some areas women dominate: women are more likely to Tweet or participate in social media such as Facebook. Even the traditionally male preserve of online gaming is changing too.   

So what’s wrong with Wikipedia? Last year, the New York Times pointed out that women make up just 13 per cent of those who contribute to Wikipedia, despite making up almost half the readers. And a few months ago, a study of these gender differences said they hinted at a culture at Wikipedia that is resistant to female participation.

Today, Pablo Aragon and buddies at the Barcelona Media Foundation in Spain suggest that the problem is seriously influencing Wikipedia’s content.

These guys have studied the biographies of the best connected individuals on 15 different Wikipedia language sites. They chose the best connected individuals by downloading all the biographies and then constructing a network in which individuals with Wikipedia biographies are nodes. They then drew links between nodes if that person’s Wikipedia biography contained a link to another individual.

Finally, they drew up a list of the best connected people.The table above shows the top five for each of the 15 language sites. 

There are some curious patterns. In many countries, politicians and leaders are the best connected individuals. For example, on the Chinese language site, Chiang Kai-shek is the best connected individual; on the English-speaking site it’s George W Bush; and on the German site, Adolf Hitler tops the list.

In other countries, entertainers head the list; Frank Sinatra in Italy, Michael Jackson in Portugal and Marilyn Monroe in Norway. 

But most curious of all is the lack of women. Out of a possible total of 75, only three are women: Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher.

That’s a puzzling disparity and one for which Aragon and co point to an obvious possibility–that the gender gap among editors directly leads to the gender gap among best connected individuals. 

Of course, that’s only speculation but Aragaon and co call it “an intriguing subject for future investigation.” We’ll be watching to see how that pans out.

In the meantime, the Wikimedia Foundation has  set itself the goal of increasing the proportion of female contributors to 25 per cent by 2015, a step in the right direction but still an embarrassing blot on the landscape of collaborative endeavour.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1204.3799: Biographical Social Networks On Wikipedia - A Cross-Cultural Study Of Links That Made History

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