Study Reveals the Subtle Gender Gap You Might Not Have Noticed on Wikipedia

June 8th 2016

A study reported Thursday in the Harvard Business Review revealed a surprising place the gender gap pops up in your browser history — Wikipedia.

We often interpret the website as a convenient, but not always accurate, collaborative online encyclopedia.

Yet, surveys from 2008 and 2011 revealed that the overwhelming minority of the site's content —13 percent worldwide in 2008, along with 9 percent worldwide and 15 percent in the U.S. in 2011 — was created and edited by women. Male and female readership was somewhat equal in 2010, according to Pew Research Center.

The study published in the journal Sex Roles examines the reasons why women are hesitant to edit Wikipedia articles.

The authors, Julia Bear, Ph.D, a professor at Stony Brook University’s College of Business, and Benjamin Collier, Ph.D, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, looked at the experiences of 1,589 Wikipedia contributors included in the 2008 survey — 17.5% of whom were were women — who said they edited articles infrequently and did not wish to be more active on Wikipedia.

Researchers examined the following:

'I don’t think I have enough knowledge or expertise to contribute,' 'I don’t feel comfortable editing other people’s work,' 'I am afraid for making a mistake and being criticized,' and 'I don’t have time.'"

The study authors observed that the women surveyed were less confident in their knowledge than men, and felt more uncomfortable editing articles — possibly because of their tendency to avoid conflict, which Bear describes in his previous research on the subject.

The authors reported:

"Significant gender differences were found in confidence in expertise, discomfort with editing, and response to critical feedback. Women reported less confidence in their expertise, expressed greater discomfort with editing (which typically involves conflict) and reported more negative responses to critical feedback compared to men."

“To a certain extent it takes a baseline level of confidence to start editing, and men and women may be setting different bars for the expertise required to do that,” Bear said. “That’s one of the reasons that we recommend Wikipedia be more proactive about finding and encouraging contributors, as opposed to depending on an individual’s decision that he or she is the expert in this area and should contribute.”

Studies show that women's confidence levels are more impacted by criticism and failure compared to men, which might explain their hesitance to participate in Wikipedia's hypercritical online community.

"When girls make mistakes, they’re more likely to interpret the setback as a sign they lack ability — a factor much harder for girls to change," TIME writer Rachel Simmons explained in August 2015. "Boys, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to more controllable circumstances."

This difference may make Wikipedia's combative environment unattractive to women.

"Wikipedia is not only an unwelcoming place to female editors, it's unwelcoming to most people," Andrew Lih, who authored "The Wikipedia Revolution," told BBC. "It's an old-school online community... and it has a tradition of verbal fighting and verbal debate. In the best cases, that leads to things that inform and inspire. In the worst cases, they lead to people feeling intimidated and uncomfortable."

In a 2014 interview, Wikimedia Foundation founder Jimmy Wales told BBC the site had "completely failed" to increase female participation to 25% by 2015.

"When you look around the world at large, you see in public forums that men's voices dominate the conversation," Sara Snyder, the deputy chief of the Media and Technology Office at the Smithsonian American Art Museum told the BBC in 2014. "We do see women needing more encouragement and invitation to voice their knowledge and expertise than men do. Men feel more confident doing that without the extra encouragement."

[h/t Harvard Business Review]

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