Close reading Wikipedia: knowledge, gender and the internet

9. Wikipedia’s infrastructure and the gender gap


“Wikipedia [is] a gradually evolving sociotechnical system that carefully orchestrates all kinds of human and non-human contributors by implementing managerial hierarchies, protocols and automated editing systems.“

– Niederer & Van Dijck 2010: 1373


 Facts from the text:

  • Less than 10% of Wikipedia editors are women
  • Gender bias in content
  • Masculine domain
  • Wikipedia’s promise of openness is controversial



Central aim:

  • Demonstrating that Wikipedia’s infrastructure introduces new and less visible sources of gender disparity
  • Wikipedia’s origins and the infrastructures are based on foundational epistemologies that exclude women, in addition to other groups of knowers whose knowledge does not accord with the standard and models established through this infrastructure



Historical background:

  • Many women not possible to study STEM (=science, technology, engineering and math) –> second wave of feminism
  • Argument: women were believed to have not the necessary skills/knowledge, but should have opportunity
  • Structures of STEM disciplines and institutions are not reshaped



Current status on Wikipedia:

  • A study (Kleeman 2015): male-linked subjects are better researched (e.g. female pornstars vs. female poets)
  • Another study (Reagle & Rhue 2011): female biographies are increasing, however in relation to the female biographies contained in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia falls short (=fear that women are being written out of history once again)
  • Female editors have to construct affective membership in pre-dominantly male community
  • Wikipedia’s identity as an encyclopedia for facts is still governed by historically conservative (male) scientific understandings of expertise and authority
  • Wikipedia requires highly technical expertise, expertise that is traditionally gendered



Sue Gardner talks about the Wikipedia gender gap

What are measures to attract more female editors? Do you agree with the recruitment method?



Wikipedia as infrastructure:

  • Wikipedia developed from different styles and forms (and their accompanying epistemologies and logics), its system and infrastructure evolved from the “Western encyclopedia” (= an earlier encyclopedia centered in the West) and the “free software movement” (= a social movement that advocates the free use of software, which involves free access to it, as well as free information of it)
  • Elements of Wikipedia infrastructure:
  1. Heading of architecture (e.g. wiki software and independent tools, engines, technical elements)
  2. Policies and laws (e.g. copyright and privacy)
  3. Norms and logics (e.g. epistemologies and norms for citation and verification, norms of expertise)
  • Heading of architecture: behind Wikipedia stands MediaWiki, which is a free open-source software that operates with API (=application programming interface). Thanks to this software many male user have created their own applications (in some cases bots or certain types of codes) and in general, those who have better understanding of this programming and these tools (=open source mode) have a better opportunity than other people who only use the default tools (= visual mode). Women usually do not go too deep into coding, since the programme is not female friendly and the usage of male tools is not that intuitive. Although Wikimedia wants to improve it, older generation or the male veteran editors push back and do not want to change the current system, since they want to remain in their position of power and reject want change. This leads to female editors not progressing any further.
  • Policies and laws: by understanding more policies and adapting your content to it, your content is less likely to be deleted. This is an important feature in defining the rules by which participants delimit what is sayable. Their complexity and ambiguity leads to power plays among contributors as they try to gain control over an article. The better one’s knowledge and realization of the different policies and protocols are, the higher the chance that one’s content remains the same. This is a problem for female contributors, who would rather not participate in this power play or argumentation amongst editors. Female editors reject the bolstering or undermining positions of other contributors.
  • Norms and logics: Wikipedia has three content policies: neutral point of view (=NPOV, which means that everything has to be written in an unbiased way), no original research (= NOR, which enforces the idea that no new and personal thought is added) and verifiability (= the way how things are referenced on Wikipedia). The last point is crucial, since everything on Wikipedia needs to be supported by evidence, otherwise it cannot stand. This leads to the conclusion that editors function as passive aggregators. Additionally, not all editors have the same level of expertise, be it about technical knowledge or the access to base literature. Depending on one’s standing in life some editors will have more access to literature that others might not have. Lastly, when writing about women on Wikipedia it is often the case that there are fewer published sources in the canon about women than men, which leads to the fact that there are less references to female originated content on Wikipedia.
  • In conclusion: infrastructure produces power relations, possessing particular types of skills and expertise leads to powerful position/function in the community.


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