Government-Funded Study: Why Is Wikipedia Sexist?

$202,000 to address ‘gender bias’ in world’s biggest online encyclopedia

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) is spending over $200,000 to find out why Wikipedia is sexist.

The government has awarded two grants for collaborative research to professors at Yale University and New York University to study what the researchers describe as “systematic gender bias” in the online encyclopedia.

“Wikipedia was launched in 2001 and has since become the world’s single most important reference tool and information clearinghouse,” the grant states. “Unlike traditional encyclopedias, which are controlled by experts, Wikipedia was supposed to have democratized knowledge.”

“Yet an emerging body of research indicates that Wikipedia suffers from systematic gender bias with respect to both contributors and content,” it continues. “How and why is this bias produced?”

$132,000 grant was awarded to Julia Adams, a sociology professor at Yale, followed by $70,000 to Hannah Brueckner, the associate dean of social sciences at NYU Abu Dhabi.

The research intends to contribute to efforts to address gender bias, such as the work of Deanna Zandt, a “media technologist” who gives speeches encouraging women to edit Wikipedia.

“The investigators are committed to the goal of training new social scientists amid a landscape of enhanced interdisciplinary understanding,” the grant said. “Yet the potential impact of this project reaches far beyond the academy.”

“Under-representation of female scholars and associated scholarship reduces the quality and completeness of Wikipedia, imposing significant costs on the millions of readers who rely on it,” it said. “The findings from this research should clarify where in the complex chain of knowledge gender disparities arise. The findings should also bolster ongoing efforts to address those disparities, in this case by improving quality and reducing bias on academic—and more general—Wikipedia.”

An ongoing debate exists over whether the website has sexist undertones.

Zandt argues that Wikipedia is biased because the majority of its editors are “young, white, child-free men.”

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with a young, white, child-free man’s perspective, of course—it’s just that there are tons of other perspectives in the world that should influence how a story gets told,” Zandt wrote in an editorial for Forbes last year, entitled, “Yes, Wikipedia Is Sexist—That’s Why It Needs You.”

“It’s not enough to sit back and hope for the best when finding sexist, racist, homophobic, trans*phobic, etc., language or information on Wikipedia,” she said. “In order to fix it, we need lots of different kinds of people to jump in and start editing Wikipedia, too.”

Last year, a New York Times op-ed leveled charges of sexism against Wikipedia because it created a separate entry dedicated to women American novelists, removing female writers from the “American Novelists” page.

Noam Cohen, a columnist for the Times who does not have a Wikipedia page, has asserted the encyclopedia is biased because articles about friendship bracelets are shorter than entries about baseball cards.

“And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on ‘Sex and the City’ includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on ‘The Sopranos’ includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode,” he wrote.

However, the Wikipedia page for “Woman” is much longer than the entry for “Man.”

Slate published a rebuttal to Cohen’s piece, arguing that a gender gap in the number of male contributors does not mean Wikipedia is sexist.

“Wikipedia’s gender imbalance is a non-problem in search of a misguided solution,” wrote Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Besides, the vast majority of men don’t contribute to Wikipedia, just as the vast majority of women don’t. The site has only 91,000 active contributors; that leaves a lot of men whose ‘voices’ are also not being heard.”