Beyond the Gender Gap: Understanding Women's Participation in Wikipedia

Danielle J Corple, Purdue University


In 2010, UNU-MERIT researchers surveyed editors of Wikipedia, “the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit” (Glott, Ghosh, & Schmidt, 2010). When the report revealed that almost 90% of the editors were male, however, it suggested that perhaps not everyone “can edit” Wikipedia—especially women. As the resulting media and academic explanations of the Wikipedia “gender gap” have largely attributed the gap to ‘female lack’—lack of initiative, confidence, or technical skills—very little research has explored the treatment of women within Wikipedia culture. Thus, this paper first draws upon feminist technology scholars to problematize current explanations of the gender gap that frame it as a ‘woman problem’. Then, through in-depth interviews with 26 English Wikipedia women editors, it explores sociocultural norms within Wikipedia that influence women’s lived experiences and participation. The findings frame these norms as gendered organizational tensions, describing how women’s experiences of these tensions lead to their perceived outcomes of isolation, emotional exhaustion and distress, and attrition. Despite these effects, many women editors persist due to their deeply rooted sense of purpose in their work on Wikipedia. The findings also draw upon feminist standpoint theory to discuss the tensions in women’s sense-making of the gender gap, specifically its causes, appropriate editor responses, and solutions. While the standpoints of the participants are complex and fluid, two primary approaches emerged. These approaches can be conceptualized as two ends of a continuum, as women who espouse an essentialist view of gender and an individualistic approach to addressing the gender gap are on one side, and women who hold to gender constructionism and call for cultural and structural change to address the gap are on the other. Thus, this study suggests that gendered sociocultural factors do bear upon women’s participation within Wikipedia, and their sense-making of these gendered tensions—their causes, outcomes, and solutions—are textured by their own social locations and experiences, demonstrating the complexity of women’s participation within Wikipedia. Due to these findings, put simply, the gender gap is not just a ‘woman problem’.^




Patrice M. Buzzanell, Purdue University.

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