Jan. 31, 2011 at 1:47 PM ET
The quintessential Wikipedia editor is a 25-year-old guy, a graduate student and typically overrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Can this lack of diversity affect the editing of the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia? "Absolutely yeah," said Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia.
In a recent interview with NPR's "On the Media," Gardner said, "87 percent of Wikipedia editors are male, and so topics that would associate or correlate with being female are certainly less well covered than topics that correlate with being interesting to men."
These uneven numbers were revealed in a study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University. Despite its "all are welcome" credo, Wikipedia is running up against the "traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women," observed a New York Times story on the study.
To address this, Wikimedia's Gardner told NYT she's set a goal to increase female contributors to 25 percent by 2015. The difference this could make on the site's entries is less tangible than simple comparisons.
For example, in illustrating the male vs. female disparity on Wikipedia, NYT offered friendship bracelets vs. baseball cards or toy soldiers, as well as "Sex and the City: vs."The Sopranos." The former, female-centric side of the comparisons had relatively short entries, compared the latter items.
Such comparisons, however, fall short when it comes to arguing how Wikipedia might benefit from a larger female influence. One might reasonably argue that friendship bracelets don't have the history or the intricacy of baseball cards or toy soldiers, or that "Sex and the City," doesn't have the thematic resonance worthy of the extensive blather inspired by "The Sopranos."
Further, the NYT comparison on Wikipedia's dearth of Mexican feminist authors vs. 43 entries on "The Simpsons" characters isn't really fair. More people, male and female, are interested in and know more about "The Simpsons" than Mexican feminist authors … and the reasons for that is a whole other "Oprah" episode.
What's interesting here is, that an attempt to draw simple comparisons to show how Wikipedia, or any other male-centric reference guide, suffers from a lack of female influence, reveals how complicated and touchy this issue is.
While female-centric topics of interest are important, it's the female perspective on subjects of general interest that mean the most in the long run. And rather than having long, drawn out discussions about it, maybe it's better to just get it done.
In pursing the goal of increasing female contributors to 25 percent, Gardner told NTY, "Gender is a huge hot-button issue for lots of people who feel strongly about it. I am not interested in triggering those strong feelings."
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