One of the things that I have been discussing with several women about Wikipedia recently involves the question: “If another woman came to you and said they were interested in getting very involved with Wikipedia, would you recommend it to them?” Privately, I have found that several women who are highly active are actually beginning to say no. I said this on a Facebook post, and a member of the Wikimedia Foundation Board asked me what the solution to this problem of women not encouraging women to participate is. My response to them was:
I am not sure what the solution is. I’m growing increasingly disillusioned, and amongst my friends, I sense similar attitudes. In reflecting on my own interactions with the community and conversations I have had with my friends and acquaintances, there are three things that I see as potential solutions.
1. Demonstrate why women should contribute to Wikipedia in a way that is personally meaningful. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, other small social networks, conferences and in-person groups do this. They provide women with contacts and networking opportunities to further professional, academic and personal goals. Wikipedia and its movement appear to be a dead-end street. The skill set for contributing doesn’t assist you. (And even some parts that do, you can get those skills elsewhere without the drama.) The networking only serves you in a limited Wikipedia movement way, which limits your options instead of expanding them. Why myself and women should be involved in terms of selfishly helping us meet our own personal, academic and professional goals needs to be made implicitly clear.
2. Demonstrate to women that they are not at risk for contributing. This is two-fold to a degree. There are too many stories of women specifically being harassed personally, academically and professionally for contributing. (Many women need to edit under their real names to get benefits or credits for their work. We are thus at an increased risk.) The community does not talk about these problems, even as it appears everyone else is now willing to engage in these discussions. Journalists, gamers, programmers, politicians, academics, scientists and social media sites are all having these conversations about the experiences of women and how awful they are. Wikipedia and the movement are not. Women are strongly being encouraged to be silent, to not feed the trolls. In being silent, we cannot share our experiences and what happens is that the harassers become the loudest voice and they are empowered. Because engaging with our harassers and discussing problems is taboo, the voices that the movement hears are the harassers and the trolls who are then perceived as legitimate voices of the community. And then because they are the only voices the movement hears, it feels like the people with institutional power then go out of their way to empower them and in effect, assist the people who are harassing women and driving them away from the project. The Wikipedia movement needs to demonstrate that this paradigm is not acceptable. The Wikipedia movement needs to demonstrate to women that they will not be put personally, professionally and academically at risk for participating. Who wants to knowingly contribute to a project where they are consciously anxious and fearful, always looking over their shoulder, when they get very little out of it?
3. Demonstrate support for content about women and of interest to women. “Category gate” [about articles concerning women and men U.S. novelists –– read our post] is going to happen again. The Chelsea Manning thing is going to happen again. There is condemnation community wise of popular culture topics, and of topics about women. We are headed towards these content issues again and again. The community appears re-active and defensive when these things come up. And there appear to be no perceived institutionally powerful people willing to pro-actively address these issues, go into the community and address these. When we do push back on women content issues, we end up with problems with point number 2. Continual community leadership and addressing the worst of the problems need to be addressed so women can feel the content about them and of interest to them matters and is not inherently inferior.
All three of these strategies feed into each other and are linked. At the end of the day, women need to feel safe to edit, that there is a reason to edit and that content about them is important and equal to the content about men. Action needs to be taken to address these points, and the action needs to come from the several parts of the movement that are perceived as having real power. The last major initiative that appears to have been addressed to encourage women to participate was a visual editor [that makes it easier to edit texts than the regular non-standard HTML used by Wikipedia], but it addressed none of these issues. People talk a good game with blog posts and speeches about how women matter, but no actions take place that confirm these. Give women solutions to deal with harassment and biased content issues and lack of opportunities in the Wikipedia movement. And then provide a press release. If you can give a press release on sock puppeting [when people use different accounts and personas on Wikipedia to edit] and actions institutional powers took against sock puppeters, why can’t institutional powers find ways to empower women and then issue press releases on that?
And I find it hard to offer examples and more concrete examples, to offer better solutions drawing on my personal experiences and that of my friends, because in doing so, I fear I will run into problems described in points 2 and points 3.
Laura Hale is a Ph.D. student at the University of Canberra, who is studying sport and social media. As a Wikipedian, she has created over 1,200 articles with over 40 percent of them about women. She has served as a Wikipedian in Residence for the Australian Paralympic Committee and the Spanish Paralympic Committee. She is also active in a leadership role in the Wikimedia movement, having served as the vice president of Wikimedia Australia, and the provisional chairperson of The Wikinewsie Group.