PHOTO CREDIT: EMMANUEL DUNANDSue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, explains why so few women contribute to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
You commissioned a study which found that while women represent half of Wikipedia's readers, they only contribute 13 percent of its pages. Why is that a big deal?
The typical Wikipedian is a 26-year-old male grad student in Northern or Western Europe or in North America. Wikipedia's mission statement is to provide the sum total of all human knowledge - not the sum of what guys who edit Wikipedia know. And if women aren't editing Wikipedia, then it isn't going to contain good information on topics they care about. We need to have everybody at the table contributing.
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Why are so few women logging on as editors?
There are a number of factors. In many cultures, women have less leisure time than men do. And the free time that women do have, they tend to put it more toward group activities. Studies also suggest that women are more dissuaded by criticism than men are. Wikipedia is a more critical environment - debate is a bit rough-and-tumble. And Wikipedia is also too hard to use. You have to learn Wiki-syntax and our software. So people who don't see tech as somewhat fun or interesting are turned off out of the gate.
So it boils down to the fact that women just aren't into tech?
I think that there are external environmental factors that have to do with how women are raised. I read a fascinating study from Carnegie Mellon that suggested when a family owns only one computer, more often than not that computer is put in the bedroom of the oldest boy. Boys stake a claim on computers and technology at a younger age than girls.
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How do you plan to get more women involved?
Research suggests that women are motivated by wanting to be nice and doing good work. We need to better explain to them Wikipedia's social utility. Another big part of it is articulating what's in it for them, since they're not getting paid for the work and it won't enhance their social status. Also, about 18 months ago, we started a project to make Wikipedia easier to use.
You moved Wikimedia's headquarters from St. Petersburg, Florida, to San Francisco. How's that been so far?
When we moved, I had friends take us around and introduce us to lots of CEOs, venture capitalists, and hedge-fund managers - the whole Silicon Valley apparatus. I spent about three months visiting maybe 100 organizations, and I didn't come across a single woman who was not getting us coffee or answering the phone.
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No sooner had you settled in than the tech-centric blogs, like Valleywag, erupted with suggestions that you got your position by dating the boss [Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales]. How did you handle that?
I don't believe that the Wikipedia community is in any serious way sexist. The same is not true of the Silicon Valley media. A friend warned me to do everything I could to avoid media coverage there because when it came to women, there seemed to be so much discussion about the way they dress and who their boyfriends are. I know a woman who was interviewed by Slashdot [a popular tech news site], which collected questions from readers. She told me that the first 80 questions concerned whether she was good-looking or not.
What's your advice for women pursuing careers in tech - keep your head down?
If you're going to succeed as a woman here, then you just have to have really thick skin. That's not advice. It's just a description of reality.
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