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.

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

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Sport
Sergio Romero saves Wesley Sneijder's penalty
world cup 2014But after defeating the Dutch, Lionel Messi and Argentina will walk out at the Maracana on Sunday as underdogs against Germany
Sport
Scoreboard at the end of the semi-final World Cup match between Brazil and Germany at The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte
Sport
'Saddest man in Brazil' takes defeat with good grace, handing replica trophy to German fans
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
video
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
News
The garage was up for sale in Canning Place Mews for £500,000
newsGarage for sale for £500,000
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Mobile App/IOS Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC)

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Mobile App/IOS...

    Front End Developer-JavaScript, Angular J.S, HTML, CSS, ASP.NET

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front End Deve...

    C# Web App Developer (ASP.NET, TDD, MVC, ASP.NET, JavaScript)

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web App Dev...

    BI Developer/Analyst (SQL, SSIS, SSAS, Data-Warehouse) London

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: BI Developer/A...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil