Of Wikipedia and Women | Vol. 2 / No. 7.1

Photo: J. Howard Miller/Tom Morris
Photo: J. Howard Miller/Tom Morris

In this week’s #FeministFriday post, blogger Elle Irise tackles the ongoing gender disparity in the Wikipedia community.


One could be forgiven for believing that Wikipedia is a gender-neutral place. Random people with excessive knowledge and time create and alter articles on whatever topics they know a lot about, and through communal effort the Internet becomes a more intelligent place. However, because knowledge is often (very literally) power, the power of Wikipedia is often in the same hands that it is in the real world: the hands of men. Only ten percent of Wikipedia editors are female, which for those of you keeping track is roughly the same proportion of Americans who believe that astrology is real, and roughly half the percentage of Americans who believe in Bigfoot. Who would have ever thought that something could make the gender “balance” in the US Congress (19% if you’re counting) look positively egalitarian?

Now, in an ideal world, the fact that only one in ten wikipedia editors is a woman wouldn’t necessarily have an obvious effect on the quality and quantity of articles about women or women’s issues. While it’s my personal belief that more diversity is always a good thing, nothing says you have to be female to edit an article about Betty Friedan or Coco Chanel — there are probably plenty of men out there who know five times as much about second wave feminism or haute couture as I do.

However, this is far from an ideal world, which means that the dearth of female editors has resulted in some unfair, sexist, and sometimes even ridiculous articles and editing battles. The Wikipedia pages for shows of arguably equal popularity show vastly disparate amounts of care and attention. The female-centric Sex and the City gets episode synopses of a few sentences, while the male-centric The Sopranos has entire articles for each episode. Women have to hold “edit-a-thons” with the express aim of creating articles on topics that the mostly-male editing body of Wikipedia have ignored, such as female scientists. In 2013, a single (male) editor took it upon himself to systematically remove female authors from the “American novelists” page and instead quarantine them in their own “American women novelists” category. He claimed that it was simply about navigational ease, completely ignoring the androcentrism inherent in having the main category of “American novelists” feature exclusively male authors, with women left as an “other” type of novelist.

The action caused a public outcry, and a frantic debate within the “halls” of the Wikipedia editing community. The end result is a “container category” page that links only to subcategories of time period, genre, and gender. The page emphatically informs readers (or more likely, editors): “Novelists should also be placed into Category:American women novelists and Category:American male novelists as appropriate, and into any relevant genre or ethnic/national categories as well. However, a novelist should never only be in a genre, ethnic, or gender-based category – all novelists should be in the century-categories at a minimum” (Original emphasis).

Enter the Gender Gap Task Force. The task force has the stated purpose of increasing the percentage of women participating in Wikipedia, improving women-related articles, and addressing the ways that the gender gap affects underlying Wikipedia processes such as editor interaction and dispute resolution. As is usual when anyone points out that inequality exists, the Task Force ruffled some feathers, the fallout of which was recently reported on in Slate. To make a long story short, a long-standing hostility between various editors was dissected and judged by Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, and the only female participant in the fight got banned indefinitely from Wikipedia while her male counterparts got stern warnings. Raise your hand if you’re surprised!

To be honest, no one in this fight comes off looking good. Carol Moore, the member of the Gender Gap Task Force that got indefinitely banned, called her opponents “the Manchester Gangbangers and their cronies/minions,” and, according to the top comment on the article by Lyanna Stark, Moore alienated other women editors, and even deterred other female editors from joining the Task Force. (Stark also claims that in her six years of editing Wikpedia she has “never seen any remotely sexist behavior on the site,” which I find not only unlikely on its face but directly contradicted by some of the behavior discussed in the article.) However, her opponents behaved just as badly if not more so, and didn’t receive nearly as harsh of a punishment. One, Eric Corbett, has faced multiple Arbitrations for uncivil behavior and personal attacks, accused the Task Force of having a “feminist agenda” and attempting to “alienate every male editor,” and in addition to calling Moore “nothing but a pain in the arse” apparently called her additional things that the author of the Slate article, David Auerbach, wouldn’t actually print. The other opponent, Sitush, created a Wikipedia biography of Moore and accused her of being “obsessed with an anti-male agenda.” While Moore was banned, Corbett was given a prohibition on abusive language, and Sitush was merely given a warning.

I don’t point this out in an attempt to champion Moore, or to vilify Corbett and Sitush. Rather, it is to show three individuals who have behaved rather badly towards one another, and showcase how the very gender disparity that the Task Force is meant to address is still in full force even in the form of punishing editors. If one of these editors deserved to get banned, then they all did. If one editor deserved to walk away with a warning, then they all should have. Similar behavior deserves similar treatment, and there is no indication that Moore behaved any worse than Sitush or Corbett. Notably, at least one of the arbitrators had to recuse themselves from judging Corbett’s case because of their negative interactions with him, and another had previous dealings with him where they “all but begged him to combine his high-quality content contributions with an improved wiki temperament.” Apparently the begging did not work.

At least one other Wikipedia editor threatened to retire from Wikipedia if this exact outcome came to be, and also pointed out that the gender makeup of the arbitration panel is actually worse than that of Wikipedia overall — only one out of the twelve arbitrators is a woman.

This case highlights the ways that systems of power are replicated in various forms, even the supposedly egalitarian, if not outright anarchistic, world of the internet and Wikipedia. Men remain the dominant voice, and the dominant authorities of what does and does not qualify as acceptable behavior. It remains to be seen if the goals of the Task Force can actually be achieved, or if powerful male editors are so entrenched that increased female participation won’t happen, or even worse, won’t matter.



Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not being sarcastic on the Internet she studies gender in popular culture.

One thought on “Of Wikipedia and Women | Vol. 2 / No. 7.1

  1. This is a really great post, Lindsey. Thank you for writing it. Somehow I was not aware of the gender disparity with Wikipedia. One time I did try editing an article to change the language to be less sexist and more gender-neutral, and I noticed the next day that someone had changed it back. That was the first and last time I tried to edit a Wikipedia page. Sigh.

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