online innovation | September 19, 2011

Wikipedia Has a Gender Gap, and Its Director, Sue Gardner, Has a Fix

There's no Wikipedia page devoted to the fact that for every five male editors, the collaborative encyclopedia only has one woman. But, if Sue Gardner has her way, they won't need that article. The matter-of-fact Executive Director of Wikipedia has already introduced major initiatives focused on organizational maturity, long-term sustainability, and the quality of the Foundation's free-knowledge projects. Now, she's turning to female participation.

Interviewed on CBC's Spark, Gardner explains why women take part in the site less than on other social networks. “One reason: women have less free time than men at all life stages. Typically because they have the second shift of house work, caring for children caring for aged parents. The free time that women have, they tend to spend on activities that are societally useful.” Gardner also notes that, “women tend to be more hurt by criticism than men, particularly online. Men tend to enjoy the cut and thrust of intellectual debate, snark, and put downs. Wikipedia is like that.”

The two concerns are being addressed through making Wikipedia “more collegial, more friendly, [and] more mutually supportive,” says Gardner. The org has rolled out Wikilove, a tool that simplifies praise in the Wikipedia community, and allows people to give out compliments in a cute and friendly way. Engaging on the academic front is another piece of the puzzle. By having professors assign Wikipedia articles as part of course requirements, the site has found that women's numbers grow in the editing community.

The clarity with which Gardner speaks of her plans—it's hard not feeling confident that she knows what she's talking about—tied with past accomplishments at the Wikimedia Foundation and as former head of are a good indication that she'll succeed in bridging the gender divide at Wikipedia, where she's only one of two women to run a top-10 website. It's all part of her ultimate goal of increasing the number of its users to one billion in the next five years.