It's a Man's World - at Wikipedia, Too

By global standards, lots of women write for the encyclopedia's Hebrew version, but not enough: 'Masculine values' have trickled in, say critics.

How many of us never use Wikipedia? But when we examine who writes the articles for the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," we find big gender gaps. Less than a quarter of the site's Hebrew authors are women.

According to a poll presented at the fifth Wikipedia Academy conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, the precise percentage is 23 percent. And the situation appears no better elsewhere; the number is thought to be only 15 percent worldwide. The Wikimedia Foundation that runs Wikipedia wants to achieve 25 percent by 2015.

Shlomit Lir, a PhD candidate in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University, once worked as an editor for Wikipedia. She says she stopped in part because "everything was written in the masculine. The linguistic hierarchical model and masculine values have trickled into Wikipedia, too."

Lir gives an example. A 2011 study compared the Wikipedia articles on "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." The article on "The Sopranos" – a television show with lots of male characters – was longer and of better quality, Lir says.

Several editors say Wikipedia Israel has a tendency to shorten articles; as a result, some entries are removed from the site that shouldn't be.

“I once wrote an article about Miriam Toukan, the first Arab contestant on Kochav Nolad," Lir says, referring to the Israeli version of "American Idol." "It was a comprehensive, well-researched article, and it was simply erased. Wikipedia adheres to a conservative policy and has a hidden hierarchy."

Several women writers for Wikipedia say editors' discussions on articles sometimes turn into battles. “The discourse on Wikipedia is very aggressive, unpleasant and unfriendly,” Lir says. “It creates an uncomfortable feeling, especially for new women users who want to write and come up against aggressive responses."

Lir says that compared to other sites like Facebook, Wikipedia is more likely to create "alienation, revulsion and fear, which has often led people to avoid writing articles for it.”

Hannah Yariv, a grandmother of three who spends a lot of time editing for Wikipedia, talks about a Wikipedia "battlefield" that some women may wish to avoid.

"Perhaps women shy away from these fights," she says. "I also feel that some men there have no problem speaking confidently about subjects they know little about, while women hesitate …. That may be another reason why fewer women edit on the site.”

According to Yariv, the number of women writing for Wikipedia has increased. She leads a project at the University of Haifa where women students in the gender studies program write an article for Wikipedia.

“I don’t know how many women will keep on editing there after the project, but I hope that those who have acquired the tools go back," she says. "It depends on how well they’re received.”

'The Sopranos' vs. 'Sex and the City'

According to a woman editor for the site who requested anonymity, "Since Wikipedia is supposed to be neutral and diverse, I’d be glad to see more variety among the writers — not just more women, but also writers from other communities in Israel." She says the minority of women writers means that fewer articles are about women. And there are other problems.

“In Wikipedia’s English version, for example, within the category of American writers, a category of women writers was started a few months ago, and they started moving articles about women writers out of the general writers’ category,” she says. “American women writers got angry about this. They didn’t understand why there had to be a separation.” She admits that “Wikipedia doesn’t exclude anyone," it's just that "sometimes an imbalance is created, and there’s no one to correct it.”

Harel Cain, a longtime writer for Wikipedia’s Hebrew site, says the small community of Israeli writers has nothing against women.

“When women say the environment isn’t pleasant, they’re right," he says. "But that’s not because of chauvinism. It’s because writing on Wikipedia is a hobby among people who write about subjects close to their hearts. Their writing appears on the Internet, where thousands of people read it. This creates ego problems among the writers and makes them aggressive. It keeps a certain type of person away — apparently women, too.”

According to Cain, Wikipedia’s technical interface isn't friendly, which could be a turnoff. "Also, the fact that the writers’ group is a kind of exclusive club with defined rules may turn people off – but that’s generally speaking, not just women …. It’s true that many articles have to do with what’s defined as ‘worlds of masculine content.’ But I’ve never seen contempt for other subjects.”

He notes, for example, that “we also have lots of articles about computers and mathematics because that interests our nerdy writers.”

Shani Evenstein, a member of Wikimedia’s executive board, talks about the effort to get women to write articles. One foray is a collaboration between Wikimedia and libraries, art galleries and other cultural institutions.

“We hold training workshops,” she says. “The face-to-face meeting of women with Wikipedia lets them feel comfortable. Last week we gave a lecture to Bar-Ilan University' senior staff. Women who are experts in their field can now write and edit articles on their subjects.”

Itzik Edri, the chairman of Wikimedia Israel, says the low number of women should disturb every editor at Wikipedia.

“We devoted our annual conference to that subject,” he says. “It’s interesting that of our five board members, two are women. I think the movement will only gain by a greater involvement of women authors, editors and advisers. Every one of us in the community needs to be a partner in that task — to bring in another woman member, another woman writer.”