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Women Discuss, Men Expound

With more than 3.5 million articles in English, Wikipedia contains information on nearly every topic imaginable, including its own authors. One thing the self-named Wikipedians reveal about themselves: Most of them are male.

According to a chart titled “Demography of Wikipedia Editors,” included in the Wikipedia entry for “Wikipedia,” less than 15 percent of those who label themselves “occasional” or “regular” contributors are female. A study by the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, and a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University found that even when it comes to reading, Wikipedia is predominantly a male realm.

The Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, Sue Gardner, recently told The New York Times that she hopes to narrow the gender gap. She said she is concerned that the gender imbalance has fueled an imbalance in information, with topics that typically interest Wikipedia’s core contributor base, men in their late teens and twenties, growing daily while other entries stagnate with just a few sentences. Her goal is to increase the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015.

But in order to get more women to participate, Gardner will first have to figure out what is currently stopping potential female contributors from taking the plunge.

In the Wikimedia study, 23 percent of respondents who engaged with Wikipedia but didn’t contribute said one of the reasons was that they did not know how. Sixteen percent said technological difficulties were a hurdle for them. A video produced by Wikimedia shows several people expressing their frustration while trying to figure out how to edit pages. It could be that the technological complexity of editing Wikipedia, which involves some knowledge of HTML, disproportionately affects female users.

But women are not outnumbered everywhere on the Web. On Facebook, female users make up 55 percent of the population, according to a chart produced by iStrategyLabs, based on data from Facebook’s Social Ads system. While Facebook’s basic interface is fairly simple, it too requires users to have some programming knowledge for certain advanced tasks, and even asks users to learn a separate programming language, Facebook Markup Language, to fully engage in all of the site’s functions.

It seems to me that the reason Facebook has a slight majority of female users while Wikipedia has a majority of male users has more to do with the ways the sites allow people to communicate, rather than with the complexity of their plumbing. On Facebook, people share things of personal significance with an audience that consists at least partly, if not entirely, of people they know. On Wikipedia, people expound on impersonal topics to an audience of strangers.

In all likelihood, women have as much information to contribute to Wikipedia as men, but they may be less likely to believe they have adequate information. In the Wikimedia study, over half of non-contributors said one of the reasons they didn’t contribute was “I don't think I have enough information to contribute.” A recent study found that, while male and female students around the world generally perform similarly on math assessments, male students express a great deal more confidence in their mathematical abilities.

In other words, our wives, sisters, daughters and girlfriends may tell us that we men are not as smart as we think we are, but we’re smart enough to know they’re wrong.

True to form, most comments on this blog seem to come from men. Those comments generally demonstrate a great deal of confidence, if not necessarily a great deal of analytical ability.

When my fairly light-hearted piece on a Mexican company’s acquisition of Sara Lee’s baked goods division was picked up by businessinsider.com, people with masculine screen names had a lot to say. Someone going by Big Ed 47 asked, “You are sort of a moron aren't you???” and another person, using the name MrSmith, took the time to comment, “Who Cares.....Next.”

The antagonistic environment that can evolve from so many men sharing their opinions so forcefully may be enough to drive women away from the conversation. While the outer shell of Wikipedia generally presents unified, collaboratively constructed articles, behind the scenes contributors defend their changes, often attacking alternative edits and other editors, on each article’s “Discussion” page.

Facebook, on the other hand, is geared toward personal conversation, rather than ideological debates. One of my Facebook friends recently posted that she could not sit through the entire showing of the acclaimed film Black Swan. This elicited about a dozen comments, ranging from agreement to “I saw it twice.” But there was no name-calling or other sign of hostility. No one asked if she was a moron.

So long as Wikipedia remains a place for people to trumpet their opinions and knowledge, it will face an uphill battle to bring in more women. According to the Op-Ed Project, an organization that tracks gender ratios in various media, a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent men to women is common for any public thought or leadership forum.

Unless Gardner finds a new way to overcome these old gender tendencies, Wikipedia will probably continue to be a better source for information on fishing than fashion, on Transformers than Polly Pockets, and on “The Sopranos” than “Sex and the City.”

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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