WMF cannot fix the Wikipedia gender participation gap

March 18th, 2011 by Laura Leave a reply »

The above statement isn’t that mind blowing. It is something that I’ve been informed that many feminists who have wanted to work towards this goal have already determined. Wikimedia Foundation cannot fix the problem. Wikimedia Foundation is part of the problem, aggravates the gender gap and institutionalises the gender gap.

If you haven’t heard of gendergap, it is a mailing list run by the Wikimedia Foundation.  The purpose of the list, in an ideal world, is to work towards reducing the gender gap on Wikipedia by increasing female participations rates at a rate that is faster than the acquisition of new male contributors.  Sadly, the ideal world is where that purpose ends.  The list for increasing female participation is run by two men: There are no female administrators.  Women are urged to join the list, and then quickly find a hostile atmosphere towards their gender and then leave.  We’ve got men who make jokes about gender politics.  We’ve got men who take an issue brought up by women, gender neutralise it and turn the issue into their own issue.  We’ve got a lot of men who want to help women, but who when asked to actually do something can’t be bothered.  If you’re noticing a thread here, it should be this: Wikimedia Foundation has a list dedicated to increasing female participation rates on Wikipedia that is run by two men and zero women, and conversation on the list is completely dominated by men.

Men can be fantastic allies for helping women achieve equality.  Men are important to this goal.  Men are necessary.   They do valuable things.

The problem is that men cannot fix the gender participation gap alone.  Women are needed.  For this effort to be a success, to decrease the gap where more women contribute, you just need to have women involved.  And many women, when working towards women’s goals, don’t feel comfortable doing so in an area dominated by men.  Many women are culturally programmed to be deferential to men.  Many women do not want to upset men.  If women are worried about upsetting men, the focus of a community does not become improving things for women but becomes about not upsetting men.  See what I’m getting at here?  The purpose gets distorted.

And that’s what we have with Gendergap.  We have a lot of dominant men, men in position of power as employees of Wikimedia Foundation.  We have men with power on Wikipedia.  We have men who think they can help improve things for women.  We have men who are quick to respond to every e-mail made to a list about increasing female participation rates.

These are men with male privilege.  When the men were educated about the concerns that women have regarding participating on such a list, the men responded with privilege.  They responded with tired, stale, clichéd arguments that people have often made in order to justify their -isms and their discrimination.  You can’t argue with the tone argument.  (Your tone bothers me.  Why are you so negative? I won’t talk to some one who uses that tone!) You  can’t argue with them about how to behave.  (If women just acted like PEOPLE, we wouldn’t have these problems!)  You can’t argue that other people’s experiences aren’t valid.  (I have a female friend who disagrees with you!)  There is no win.

And at the end of the day, when women on a list intended for increasing female participation rates tell men that they are awesome but maybe the men could fork off and women could try to develop their own solutions get told the deputy director of the organisation, Erik Möller that:

IMO this list was started as an inclusive forum for discussion of
gender gap among equal participants. Discrimination by gender doesn’t
make sense to me. My vote goes to common sense rules, election of a
male and female moderator, and enforcement of those rules into actual
practice (without discrimination by gender). In other words,
egalitarianism and sensible moderation.

If people want to run female-only lists or groups, I think that can be
useful and good, but should be done separately.

What more can you say?  Erik Möller’s offer I’m sure seemed to be non-sexist to him.  I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that if there was a problem on the list, that women were not comfortable with the level of sexism and male domination on the list, that they should leave.  I’m sure Erik Möller did not mean to imply here that WOMEN were interfering with Wikipedia’s goal of increasing female participation on Wikipedia.  I’m reasonably certain that Erik Möller didn’t intend to use an argument historically used to suppress minority opinions when he said he refused to engage because our tone was not correct.  I’m sure Erik Möller is a good guy.  That doesn’t mean that Erik Möller isn’t a sexist, because Erik Möller is being sexist.  He may be well meaning but that just makes him a well meaning sexist, who parrots wanting to help women while throwing up all sorts of new hurdles for increasing women’s participation on Wikipedia.

One of those hurdles on for increasing women’s representation on Wikipedia is Erik Möller, who put his own male ego before the greater good because Erik Möller couldn’t see his own male privilege and acknowledge it, learn from it, and then work towards improving the situation.  Another hurdle is the two male administrators on the list.  There is sexism on that list and the male administrators let it continue.  They don’t ban the most offensive sexists.  Erik Möller and the administrators have apparently come to a conclusion: They would rather that women leave the list than to hurt male feelings.

Wikipedia needs to be fixed.  It just needs to be fixed from the outside.  Projects like Women4Wikipedia are a good start.

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