U of M Researchers Find Gender Bias on Wikipedia

Significantly fewer females than males edit and post content to the popular online information source-which, in turn, has less coverage of topics that may be of particular interest to women, according to new findings.

Chances are good that you've looked up information on Wikipedia at least once or twice-but if you're a female, you may not have had the best luck finding what you were seeking.

Computer science researchers in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering are leading a team that has identified a substantial gender gap among editors of the site and a corresponding gender-oriented disparity in the content.

Wikipedia, which bills itself as a “free encyclopedia,” is an online information source that's unique in that anyone can post and edit content on its many topical pages. It relies on millions of volunteer editors to post information that can be seen by the roughly 400 million people who access the site's pages each month.

In their research paper, “WP: Clubhouse? An Exploration of Wikipedia's Gender Imbalance,” U of M researchers used self-reported gender information from more than 110,000 editors between 2005 and January 2011.

What they found: Only 16 percent of new editors joining Wikipedia in 2009 identified themselves as female, and those females made only 9 percent of the edits made by those who joined that year.

The researchers point out that the gender gap has nearly disappeared in other areas of social media. Females outnumber males on both Facebook and Twitter, but Wikipedia's gender gap has shown no visible sign of closing over the past five years.

“We were stunned to see such a significant gender gap in Wikipedia,” John Riedl, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Computer Science and Engineering and a member of the research team, said in a statement. “As Wikipedia continues to be a critical information resource, it is important that all voices be heard. We feel that understanding the challenges caused by Wikipedia's sizable gender gap can be a first step to finding ways to broaden participation.”

In addition to uncovering evidence of a gender gap, researchers found that Wikipedia articles about topics that may be of particular interest to females are significantly shorter than articles that are more geared toward males. And Wikipedia's coverage of movies with overwhelmingly female audiences is lower quality than its coverage of male-targeted movies.

The researchers also analyzed the role of gender in conflict among Wikipedia's editors. They found that the articles that females tend to edit are twice as likely to be about controversial or contentious topics-and female editors are significantly more likely to have their early contributions undone by other editors and more likely to be blocked by fellow editors.

“We expected to find that females would avoid conflict, but to our surprise we found just the opposite,” Riedl said in a statement. “We're not sure exactly what this means, but it may give us more insights into the Wikipedia culture that could be one of the contributing factors to the gender gap.”

U of M's researchers decided to investigate Wikipedia after seeing anecdotal information suggesting that a small number of female editors may have led to a deficiency in coverage of topics that are of particular interest to females.

A January 2011 article by The New York Times pointed out that a topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, only has four paragraphs-but there are lengthy entries about topics boys might favor, like toy soldiers or baseball cards. Even the most famous fashion designers-including Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo-get just a handful of paragraphs, according to the article.

Wikipedia is run by the Wikimedia Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that's dedicated to encouraging the growth and development of free, multilingual content.