Archives for posts with tag: Jane Margolis

This morning, Noam Cohen of the New York Times published Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List, a terrific, characteristically-thoughtful piece about the gender gap on Wikipedia.

In his piece, Noam quotes me on why the gap matters, and talks with researcher Joseph Reagle about Wikipedia’s origins in the “hard-driving hacker crowd,” and how that contributed to an early male skew. He also cites examples of systemic bias in action on Wikipedia, contrasting light coverage of topics such as friendship bracelets, Sex and the City, Jimmy Choo and Mexican feminist authors against deeper coverage of topics such as toy soldiers, baseball cards, Grand Theft Auto IV and The Simpsons. He gathers opinions and context from Wikimedia Foundation board member and longtime Wikipedian Kat Walsh [1], iconic gender-and-technology researcher Jane Margolis, as well as Katie Orenstein, who runs the Op-Ed Project, an organization aimed at helping women achieve voice as public intellectuals.

That piece prompted a flurry of other coverage, and I also got lots of interesting e-mail. In the next week or so, I’m going to write more about it here. For now though, this is just a quick collection of some of the most interesting coverage.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes a short piece in The Business Insider called Wikipedia Is Hampered By Its Huge Gender Gap, arguing that Wikipedia’s gender gap is a problem “because people turn to Wikipedia as an objective resource, and it’s not so objective in many ways. Another problem is that the community of Wikipedia contributors is famously independent-minded and might rebel at affirmative action-like initiatives to bring in more female contributors.”

Mother Jones publishes a Kevin Drum piece called Wikipedia’s Gender Problem, in which he argues “I suspect the reason has less to do with women having trouble asserting their opinions and more to do with the prevalence of obsessive, Aspergers-ish behavior among men.” “I’ve long been convinced that this tendency toward obsession is one of the key differences between men and women. I don’t know what causes it. I don’t know if it helped primitive men kill more mastodons during the late Pleistocene. But it does seem to be real.”

Matt Warman at The Telegraph writes a piece called Why Wikipedia’s editors are mostly male, quoting Jimmy saying that although editing Wikipedia is most appealing to geeks, he doesn’t think it’s unwelcoming to new people. Jimmy says that a key piece of solving the problem will be increasing our efforts to make Wikipedia’s interface more user-friendly.

Raven Lovecraft at TG Daily writes a piece headlined 85% of Wikipedia entries are made by men, and points out that “in recent years there have been great strides in the female user base of video games, social networking accounts, and jobs in the technology field.” (I might actually question that last: it’s my understanding that women’s representation in technology firms is declining, not increasing.) Lovecraft describes Wikipedia’s gender gap as “almost off the charts.”

Discover magazine publishes a short piece called On Friendship Bracelets and Ninja Turtles: Wikipedia’s Gender Gap, which suggests that “it might also be healthy to acknowledge the danger and shortcomings in labeling articles as “male” or “female”–not every girl weaves friendship bracelets, and not every boy enjoys watching turtle fights,” while also arguing that “more women Wikepedia contributors would mean a more diverse website–one where formerly terse entries become more nuanced, and past untouched subjects get mentioned–creating, in short, a better and more informed Wikepedia.” There are some particularly interesting comments on that piece, many presumably from women working in science.

Anna North writes a piece on Jezebel called Why Wikipedia Needs More Ladies, that “it’s not just Wikipedia — social news sites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot remain majority male, with Slashdot clocking in at 82% dudes. Some of these spaces are actively hostile to women (we’re looking at you, Digg), but in Wikipedia’s case the problem is more complex than that. Adding to an entry requires a user not just to set herself up as an authority, but also to sign in and enter an online community that’s deeply focused on information and trivia — a kind of community where women encounter both internal (what does she know?) and external (what’s a girl doing spending time in a place like that?) stigma. Certain forms of geeking out are Cool for women now (liking comic books, for instance), but editing the Pat Barker entry on Wikipedia isn’t one of them.”

And Eli Rosenberg at The Atlantic, in a piece called Where Are All the Wiki-Women?, characterizes Wikipedia’s gender gap as “a little surprising, especially given that the option of contributing to Wikipedia’s vast cultural database is open to anyone with an idea and a keyboard, with little of the implicit male-dominated infrastructure of more traditional corporate or media organizations.” He also offers a great round-up of links to other stories.

Eyder Peralta writes on the NPR blog a piece called Facing Serious Gender Gap, Wikipedia Vows To Add More Women Contributors, observing that “something like Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that everyone is encouraged to contribute to, is supposed to have a democratizing effect; instead, it seems, it’s mirroring — and compounding — the issues we have in the real world.”

Helen A.S. Popkin writes on a piece called Dude-centric Wikipedia needs more women. “What’s interesting here,” she writes, “is that an attempt to draw simple comparisons to show how Wikipedia, or any other male-centric reference guide, suffers from a lack of female influence, reveals how complicated and touchy this issue is. While female-centric topics of interest are important, it’s the female perspective on subjects of general interest that mean the most in the long run. And rather than having long, drawn out discussions about it, maybe it’s better to just get it done.”

[1] Edited to add: Kat elaborates on her comments to the Times in this blog post.

If you’ve seen other good coverage, please add it in the comments. If you’ve got ideas about the origins of our gender gap, or how to fix it, please share that too. I’ll be writing more on both those topics in the coming weeks.

I’ve spent most of my career in public broadcasting, which is a very female-friendly environment. So the lack of women in Wikimedia / free culture / free software / Silicon Valley and the STEM world, has been a real culture shock for me. For anyone who doesn’t already know this: only 13% of Wikimedia project editors are female; less than 2% of free software contributors are female, and women are losing ground, not gaining it, in Silicon Valley tech companies.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why our space is so gender-imbalanced, and how we can make it better.

Mostly I’ve kept my thoughts to myself thus far, because gender is an emotional topic for lots of people, and I’m not all that interested in arguing about it. But I’ll probably post here occasionally about gender issues. The purpose of this post is to talk about one fantastic book on women in computing, and what we might learn from it.

When I started reading and thinking about women in technology, I kept coming across references to Unlocking the Clubhouse, by academics Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. Here’s how it’s described by the American Library Association.

Margolis and Fisher document the astonishing gender gap in the field of computing by answering the question of why female interest in technology begins to wane in middle school and all but dies in high school. The authors argue that male dominance in information technology can be traced directly back to cultural, social, and educational patterns established in early childhood. Women, therefore, are vastly underrepresented in one of the most economically significant professions of the twenty-first century. After countless hours of classroom observation and interviews with hundreds of computer science students and teachers, the authors offer an array of formal educational reforms and informal practical solutions designed to rekindle and to nurture female interest in computer design and technology.”

Unlocking the Clubhouse is canonical, maybe because it’s unusually solutions-focused. It studies Carnegie-Mellon, which over a five-year period managed to achieve a 35% increase in female admissions to its computer science school (double the rate of increase for comparable research universities), and brought down the rate of female attrition from double that of men, to nearly the same. If you’re interested in gender in computer science, I highly recommend it. (If you’re on the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation, it’s in our library.)

Below, I’ve extracted bits that I think are particularly helpful for us. Try reading it as though “computer science” meant “Wikimedia,” and “teachers” meant “experienced editors.” I wrote the bolded text; the remainder is direct quotes from the book. Emphasis in the original.

  1. Deliberately focus efforts on recruiting women. Don’t assume that general outreach efforts will motivate women. Encourage women to recruit other women. Boys have staked their claim at the computer very early both at home and in schools. Girls who are interested but intimidated, or girls who don’t know what computer science is but could be very interested, need an extra word of encouragement from teachers, parents, or counselors. Rule number one, then, is that teachers have to deliberately focus efforts on recruiting girls. If teachers issue a generic recruitment call, boys turn out. Girls must know the teacher is talking to them. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of encouragement to fire a girl’s interest. … Some of the best recruiters of girls are other girls. … two mottoes emerged: “Recruit friendship circles” and “Recruit a posse.”
  2. Stage and support women-only activities. These events attract girls who would normally stay away from the classes where they fear being left in the dust or shouted down by more experienced or just plain louder boys. They provide learning environments where girls take risks, take leadership, ask questions, stop worrying about what they do not know, and build confidence.”
  3. Don’t get dissuaded by opposition. When teachers begin to make a special effort to recruit girls, they often encounter some opposition. Other teachers, boys, and sometimes girls may object that special efforts to recruit girls are not fair. … This is an important teaching opportunity: an opportunity to explain how boys have already been recruited into computer science. Public image, media and marketing of computers have been specifically focused on boys. The gender stereotypes associated with computing tend to pull boys in and push girls away. To balance the influences, a concerted campaign to recruit girls is necessary.“
  4. Work to create and protect a female-friendly environment. Computer science classrooms often have the feel of a boy’s locker room. The humor and banter usually reflect the male demographics. Donovan Williams of Madison, Wisconsin, told us of a computer programming contest, organized by a recent high school graduate, that included problems titled “Don’t Forget the Beer” and “Checkin’ Out the Babes.” He wrote to the contest organizer, explaining how the contest call assumed a male audience and could alienate female students. … Much prior research shows that female students in technical disciplines, perhaps because of their “outsider-ness,” are especially vulnerable to poor teaching, inhospitable teaching environments, and unhelpful faculty. Even a small proportion of such occurrences against an otherwise welcoming and supportive background can have severe negative effects.”
  5. Emphasize social impact. Women students’ descriptions of why they are majoring in computer science are a “counter-narrative” to the stereotype of computer scientists who are narrowly focused on their machines and are hacking for hacking’s sake. Instead, these women tell us about their multiple interests and their desire to link computer science to social concerns and caring for people. These women may or may not qualify as ‘people people’ on a psychological inventory exam to the same degree as those involved in nursing, social work, or child care, but they need their computing to be useful for society. … A metaanalysis of research on gender and science by Marcia Linn and Janet Hyde concluded that a major sex difference in interests in math and science is its perceived usefulness. … University of Michigan researcher Jacquelynne Eccles reports that the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions, a longitudinal study of approximately 1,000 adolescents from southern Michigan, found that “women select the occupation that best fits their hierarchy of occupationally-relevant values,” and that helping others and doing something worthwhile for society is high in that hierarchy.”

Further reading: Vel Henson’s classic essay HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux


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