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The Online Gender Gap: Why Don't More Women Participate in Online Forums?

A 2010 survey by the Wikimedia Foundation and its partners found that only 13% of its hundreds of thousands of contributors were women.

The survey’s results helped reinvigorate the ongoing debate: Why do women contribute less often than men to public websites’ editing and comments sections? This and other survey findings on the gender gap continue to have implications for web content beyond simple contributor numbers since, as technologist Gina Trapani writes, creations reflect their makers.

In designing their strategy to increase women’s participation, Wikipedia and other website developers must address the gap on two levels: Both the ways women are currently treated or feel like they are treated in that specific forum, but also the greater issue as to why women might not feel relevant to the online commentary environment in the first place.

What many have glossed over is that it may prove more fruitful to ask who is contributing to these forums rather than to focus on why women are not. As expected, Wikipedia’s main contributor was typically a male in his mid-20s. Likely that individual and other website commentators were completely engaged in the “obsessive fact-loving” computer world either through direct involvement with web industries or due to their own personal pleasure.

Here the New York Times used the word “obsessive” not in the pejorative sense, but simply to indicate the amount of time consistent and occasional contributors alike found necessary for worthwhile online engagement. For instance, Wikipedia editing often requires numerous revisions, submissions, and defending of one’s submissions. Clearly there is a specific type of person who has both the time and motivation to engage in such effort-consuming activities.

Yet, instead of addressing this, much of the debate that followed the survey’s release has focused on the feelings argument: that women are not as confrontational as men or are less likely to seek self-recognition. Yes, these attributes are a reality not to be disparaged. For women who consciously chose not to start or decide to stop contributing, overly hostile discussions with strangers can seem counterproductive to the goal of knowledge-sharing, overtly personal, and not worth the effort.

Still, a most interesting aspect of this conversation has been the number of people who have been genuinely surprised that an anonymous online community may be associated with similar prejudices and obstacles as well-developed and highly structured public forums like political institutions. Why? Just because people can blog or post from the privacy of their homes does not mean they are free from wider societal developments that shape individual attitudes or that the blogging culture is particularly inclusive and free of stigma.   

Anna North of the popular Jezebel blog really hit the point home with her analysis on the subject. North writes that the marginal numbers of female editors on Wikipedia are indeed symptomatic of greater social divisions and constructions of gender-appropriate activities. Since introverted or intellectual women continue to endure social censure for being un-feminine, it is not difficult to see why more women tend to be dependent on an alternative path to voicing opinion or to be drawn to less censure-inducing social activities such as Facebook. Relatively speaking, it is likely that Wikipedia’s male contributors feel less inhibited by the social stigmas attached to public website engagement.

At least for now, website developers must consider why more women have not even considered engaging in online commentary in the first place and not necessarily why they have stopped. This direction of thought will lead to more substantial explanations behind the gender gap statistics.

Photo Credit: Amichay  

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