What has Wikipedia’s army of volunteer editors got against Kate Middleton’s wedding gown?

Tim Walker reports on the problem of gender bias at the online encyclopedia.

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The Independent Tech

There are more than four million articles in English on Wikipedia, not to mention the entries in 27-odd other languages. In spite of its almost infinite reach, however, the site's conscientious volunteer editors still argue over the inclusion of certain topics.

Before last year's Royal Wedding was even over, for instance, there was already an article on Wikipedia about Kate Middleton's wedding dress. There was also a debate raging on the accompanying "article for deletion" page about whether it should be allowed to remain. The 1,600-word article survives to this day; so does the debate.

"'Wedding dress of…' as an article in an encyclopaedia?" sputtered one exasperated editor. "Exactly the sort of the thing that made me all but quit as an active user on this project." "I've seen some pretty retarded articles around here over the years," another said. "But this tripe gives them a run for their money. Simply being 'in the news' is not the only criteria to create a Wikipedia article."

But many were in favour of keeping the entry, including Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, who weighed in. "I hope someone will create lots of articles about famous dresses," Wales wrote. "Our systemic bias caused by being a predominantly male geek community is worth some reflection in this contest. We have nearly 90 articles about Linux distributions… I think we can have an article about this dress. We should have articles about 100 famous dresses."

As reported by Slate's Future Tense blog, Wales raised the matter again at the site's annual Wikimania conference in Washington DC last month. One of the most common problems Wikipedia faces is a gender imbalance among its editors, he said. There are more than 17 million Wikipedia accounts, though only a small minority – around 34,000 – are active editors. For the past two years, surveys have found that men make up 91 per cent of them.

Male editors also make more Wikipedia edits than female editors. This leads to "topic bias" and the Duchess of Cambridge's gown, designed by Sarah Burton, is far from the sole example, Wales said.

The article on friendship bracelets is approximately 250 words long; the article on baseball cards, 5,000 words. The article on Sex and the City is approximately 6,000 words long; the article on The Sopranos, 9,000. Speaking to The New York Times last year, Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, offered the example of one of her favourite female authors, Pat Barker (1,200 words), versus Niko Bellic, a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV (2,900).

The "male geek culture" cited by Wales can be intimidating for other men as well as women. Wikipedia editors have, on average, twice as many Ph.Ds as the rest of the public. Women are better represented in English than in the rest of the site's languages, accounting for 13 per cent of editors. This disparity is reflected in the rest of the technology community. Despite some high-profile female CEOs, Silicon Valley is itself male-dominated, with only an estimated 8 per cent of tech companies being founded by women.

But a topic bias on Wikipedia is a problem, says Sarah Stierch, a Wikimedia Foundation community fellow. "Our mission is to provide the world with the sum of all human knowledge," Stierch said. "How can you do that when only half of the world is writing the encyclopaedia?"

Women editors don't necessarily write about generically female topics, Stierch said. "I was nervous when Kate Middleton's wedding dress was used as an example of something that women would edit, because it's a stereotype," she said. "As an editor, I write about women in science, the arts, birds: things that interest me. But when people write about wedding dresses, or about obscure but really important female scientists, those articles get nominated for deletion by people who aren't educated or interested in that subject area. I could nominate racing-car drivers for deletion because I don't know anything about them."

The Wikimedia Foundation aims to increase the share of women editors to 25 per cent by 2015. In 2004, fewer than 4 per cent of editors were women. Stierch has spoken to women all over the world and found that the biggest deterrent is time constraint. Stierch was given her first computer in 1990, when she was 10. She grew up fascinated by hacker culture. But like many women she was discouraged from taking up technical classes, let alone a tech career. She became a make-up artist, then a museum curator. "I started editing Wikipedia because I was stuck at home after a car accident and I started to correct spelling mistakes. I got addicted."

In March, as the Smithsonian Institution Archives' "Wikipedian-in-residence", she organised and hosted a "Women in Science Edit-A-Thon", which invited editors to create new Wikipedia articles about significant women from scientific history, whose names featured in the Smithsonian Archive, but not on the web encyclopaedia.

This year she also trialled Teahouse, another inclusive Wikipedia initiative. "Women like to socialise, to talk, and Wikipedia resists that because the community doesn't want to be like Facebook… also, its policies are complex and it's a pain in the ass to read 2,000 words on what makes something notable, when you could just ask somebody for a simple answer. Teahouse was a slightly social and cool-looking online space with experienced editors ready to answer questions. Women like to be invited – we're not gatecrashers – so we asked 500 new editors to visit the Teahouse; 28 per cent of them were women and 33 per cent of the participants are still editing Wikipedia now."

The site plans to release a new visual editing tool, to make the process of editing less daunting. And Stierch is working on the WikiWomen's Collaborative, a new "online action space" set to launch in October, to engage women and explain the importance of volunteering to edit Wikipedia.

Word count: How coverage compares

Sarah Burton fashion designer, 443 words vs Chris Bangle BMW designer, 842 words

Sex and the City 6,000 words vs The Sopranos 9,000 words

Baseball cards 5,000 words vs Friendship bracelets 250 words

Author Pat Barker 1,200 words vs GTA's Niko Bellic 2,900 words

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