Sunday, August 21, 2016

Wikipedia and the numbers falacy

One of the main attempts at solutions to the lack of women on Wikipedia is to encourage more women to come to Wikipedia and edit. The idea is that greater numbers of women on Wikipedia will result in greater equality on the platform; that there will be more information about women and women's issues, and a hoped for "civilizing influence" on the brutish culture.

This argument is so obviously specious that it is hard for me to imagine that it is being put forth by educated and intelligent people. Women are not a minority - we are around 52% of the world's population and, with a few pockets of exception, we are culturally, politically, sexually, and financially oppressed throughout the planet. If numbers created more equality, where is that equality for women?

The "woman problem" is not numerical and it cannot solved with numbers. The problem is cultural; we know this because attacks against women can be traced to culture, not numbers: the brutal rapes in India, the harassment of German women by recent-arrived immigrant men at the Hamburg railway station on New Year's eve, the racist and sexist attacks on Leslie Jones on Twitter -- none of these can be explained by numbers. In fact, the stats show that over 60% of Twitter users are female, and yet Jones was horribly attacked. Gamergate arose at a time when the number of women in gaming is quite high, with data varying from 40% to over 50% of gamers being women. Women gamers are attacked not because there are too few of them, and there does not appear to be any safety in numbers.

The numbers argument is not only provably false, it is dangerous if mis-applied. Would women be safer walking home alone at night if we encouraged more women to do it?  Would having more women at frat parties reduce the rape culture on campus? Would women on Wikipedia be safer if there were more of them? (The statistics from 2011 showed that 13% of editors were female. The Wikimedia Foundation had a goal to increase the number to 25% by 2015, but Jimmy Wales actually stated in 2015 that the number of women was closer to 10% than 25%.) I think that gamergate and Twitter show us that the numbers are not the issue.

In fact, Wikipedia's efforts may have exacerbated the problem. The very public efforts to bring more women editors into Wikipedia (there have been and are organized campaigns both for women and about women) and the addition of more articles by and about women is going to be threatening to some members of the Wikipedia culture. In a recent example, an edit-a-thon produced twelve new articles about women artists. They were immediately marked for deletion, and yet, after analysis, ten of the articles were determined to be suitable, and only two were lost. It is quite likely that twelve new articles about male scientists (Wikipedia greatly values science over art, another bias) would not have produced this reaction; in fact, they might have sailed into the encyclopedia space without a hitch. Some editors are rebelling against the addition of information about women on Wikipedia, seeing it as a kind of reverse sexism (something that came up frequently in the attack on me).

Wikipedia's culture is a "self-run" society. So was the society in the Lord of the Flies. If you are one of the people who believe that we don't need government, that individuals should just battle it out and see who wins, then Wikipedia might be for you. If, instead, you believe that we have a social obligation to provide a safe environment for people, then this self-run society is not going to be appealing. I've felt what it's like to be "Piggy" and I can tell you that it's not something I would want anyone else to go through.

I'm not saying that we do not want more women editing Wikipedia. I am saying that more women does not equate to more safety for women. The safety problem is a cultural problem, not a numbers problem. One of the big challenges is how we can define safety in an actionable way. Title IX, the US statute mandating equality of the sexes in education,  revolutionized education and education-related sports. Importantly, it comes under the civil rights area of the Department of Justice. We need a Title IX for the Internet; one that requires those providing public services to make sure that there is no discrimination based on sex. Before we can have such a solution, we need to determine how to define "non-discrimination" in that context. It's not going to be easy, but it is a pre-requisite to solving the problem.


Anonymous said...

" Women are not a minority - we are around 52% of the world's population and, with a few pockets of exception, we are culturally, politically, sexually, and financially oppressed throughout the planet."

How can this general a condition be addressed by Title IX or some analogue? Although political rights can be protected by the rule of law, this is evidently not the root of the problem. Dysfunctional situations like Wikipedia merely show how technology can exacerbate human behavior.

Karen Coyle said...

This is exactly what Title IX addresses, as well as other anti-discrimination legislation (from the UN statement of human rights on down). And given that human behavior in, say, Iceland is quite different from human behavior in, say, Saudia Arabia, exactly which human behavior are you referring to? Also, would you make a reply like this to the issue of policing and "Black lives matter"? There's nothing we can do about it, it's just human behavior, so let it go? Do attacks like this take place on Facebook in the same way they do on 4chan? Honestly, your view is not supported by the facts. And it sounds like you are willing to accept the oppression of women. I am not.

Andy Dingley said...

The instant bulk move from Editathon to article deletion was a disaster, agreed. It is also far from unusual; most university editing coursework goes the same way too. Yet the AfD (deletion requests) were probably right - the articles were broken; fortunately most were fixed rather than deleted. It's not the deletion process that failed, it was the creation process. During the Editathon it wasn't made clear how seriously WP takes copyright and copying from other web sources, also the need to show "WP:NOTABILITY" (a particular WP shibboleth). This same mistake keeps happening over and over whenever there are outreach projects.

It is disingenuous though to present it as part of WP's entrenched sexism (which I agree is real and a problem). Instead it's mostly a problem with Editathons. Yes, it happens to articles on male scientists too.

Karen Coyle said...

Andy, as you well know, "broken" articles are not supposed to be tagged for deletion; deletion is for articles whose subject is deemed not worthy of Wikipedia. Broken articles (unless they are completely incoherent) should be tagged with the list of the improvements that need to be made - such as needing more references (the most common lack). The discussion that takes place about articles that have been tagged for deletion is specifically about whether the subject of the article is worthy, even if the article is imperfect. In fact, discussing the formal imperfections in the article usually results in a sharp retort from other editors that "this is not what [the deletion discussion] is about!"

I admit that editathons often turn out articles that still need work, and I have worked on dozens of them to get them up to speed as they have come through Articles for Creation (which is a place where new articles can be reviewed before going in to Wikipedia). But wholesale tagging for deletion still looks suspicious to me, since it means a wholesale judgment that the subjects of the articles were not "notable". But many of the subjects were proven to be of notable caliber. I would love to see a good comparative study of what articles are and are not deleted, but we already have information that shows that articles about women and about woman-centered information are greatly under-represented - not only because no one "bothered" to add the information, but because it was often removed. (cf WP:THREATENING2MEN by Peake)

And I must say that I am far from disingenuous.

[Note: explanations of the processes are here for readers who are not familiar with Wikipedia's processes. Andy knows them well.]

Karen Coyle said...

I realize that I should expand on the "disingenuous" statement, because it hides an important point. In terms of identifying sexism, it seems to me that there are two options:

1) You assume that there is no sexism unless proven otherwise

2) You assume that there is sexism unless proven otherwise

We've been living with the first assumption for millennia, and I am not happy with the results. I think it's worth trying out the second assumption for a while, and see what results we have. This is not disingenuousness, it is a political choice. This is going to -- heck already has -- annoy a lot of people, but battles for equality DO annoy a lot of people, while inequality oppresses. I've made my decision.

Anonymous said...

It's not just that there are virtually no women in Wikipedia, it's that no one has started to identify the barriers to participation for women. That is the real problem. And the WMF management does not seem to have anyone in the movement they partner with on an ongoing basis to identify these barriers and make recommendations. You might be interested in Kevin Gorman's comments at the end of Danielle Citron's speech at last year's WikiConference USA. It's a pity this type of analysis only goes on at conferences and not year round.

Title IX is the obvious place to start. It has worked for the government sector and there is no reason to believe it will not work for the non-profit sector. As Citron pointed out in her speech, the law cannot do everything, but it can help change social attitudes and behavior.

I fear that Wikipedia's problem with women is only the tip of the iceberg. So far, it has proven very difficult for people from professional backgrounds and non-professional backgrounds to contribute without conflict. But we can start to get some movement on women's issues, the other issues should start to fall into place as well.

Karen Coyle said...

Hi, foundsixty - First, I want to make your link clickable, and add that the whole speech is here. That article hit me right in the heart, because 1) I just attended the memorial service for Kevin Gorman, who died a few weeks ago and 2) what he says there (that women who are taken to arbitration are nearly universally banned) also hits home, because the person who took me to ANI later called for a permanent ban on me from Wikipedia.

I looked through the list of sponsors of Wikipedia, and since none are US government, Title IX cannot be applied. (I hoped that I would find one such grant which would give us some leverage). Citron is right that we have proof, through Title IX, that some of this behavior will only be changed if legislated. It is just too entrenched, and the forces against it have too much control. Although not perfect, Title IX has had a tremendous effect on providing opportunities for women in sports. I graduated from high school in 1967. My yearbook has separate sections for men's sports and women's sports. The section on women's sports shows women making posters for the men's sports. So women's sports were like a ladies auxiliary to men's sports. Compare that to today.

I believe that change is possible, partly from seeing what has happened in this country, and partly from seeing the few other countries that have made great progress. I am not going to give up because it makes some people uncomfortable.