There is a sizable gender gap among Wikipedia editors, with some estimates suggesting women comprise only 10–15% of the editing community. While the exact figures are certainly debatable, most agree that having a disproportionate number of male editors has the potential to create—or already has created—a systemic bias towards topics in which men are generally more interested. Over the years, the Wikimedia Foundation and others have endeavored to bridge the gender gap with projects such as the Teahouse, the Gender Gap Task Force (GGTF), and various Meta initiatives, such as the WikiWomen's Collaborative.
Recently, Wikipedia editor Lightbreather, a participant in GGTF and other such projects, began developing a grant proposal ("WikiProject Women") to create an on-wiki exclusive space for women to discuss issues, support one another, and recruit new editors. Thus far, her idea has received mixed reviews.
Lightbreather proposed WikiProject Women because in current wiki discussion venues, it is likely that men will comprise a significant percentage of discussants. Moreover, discussions descend into vitriol rather frequently, which women often find off-putting. If Wikipedia is ever going to close its gender gap, she reasons, women must play a central role, and to do that, they need a space to discuss issues where they can guarantee hearing predominantly women's voices. She told the Signpost:
No single event made me start this. I simply got fed up with the hostility that I experienced and observed in many discussions and edit summaries. The antagonistic Wikipedia editing environment is one that most men (and some women) seem to embrace (or at least to endure), whereas most women (and some men) do not.
Lightbreather points to the Arbitration Committee's decision on the Gender Gap Task Force case as an example of the need to include more women's voices in Wikipedia discussions. That case was criticized by many both on and off Wikipedia (including Slate columnist David Auerbach; see previous Signpostcoverage) for site-banning a female editor while issuing lesser sanctions to her two male antagonists. Lightbreather believes that a committee with a different gender composition would have reached a different conclusion:
If there had been six men and six women (instead of 11 men and 1 woman), on that committee, either a) the one known woman editor who was banned would have had two known men editors for company, or b) the one known woman and the known men would have all been spared. However, what happened was c) the one known woman editor was banned and the known men were spared.
Lightbreather cites this article from Forbes entitled "Why Women Need Women-Only Networks" to explain why men agreeing to let women have space to flesh out ideas collaboratively alone is not sufficient.
Andreas Kolbe agreed, commenting, "What is clear (you only need to look at the GGTF discussions in the [English Wikipedia]) is that there should be a space where women can hear themselves talk and think about the gender gap without constantly having men take potshots at them, or otherwise undermining their efforts."
Notably, Eric Corbett, who was topic banned from discussing Wikipedia gender issues on the English Wikipedia as a result of the Gender Gap Task Force arbitration case, wondered how this proposal would differ from previous ones to include only certain editors in a certain area of the encyclopedia: "I recall that in the not too distant past a project that selected membership on the basis of editors having written a GA/FA was deleted," he wrote. "The argument was that every page should be open to everyone to contribute to. What's the difference here?"
As for the discussion on Meta, although some support has been enthusiastic, much of it has been tempered. For example, LauraHale said, "Unless there is a way to address the underlying cultural issues that make Wikipedia such a hostile environment for women, this feels like trying to find a bandaid solution to a gunshot wound ... Something needs to be done though, and if a bandaid is it, then a bandaid it shall be."
Opposition to the proposal is largely three-pronged.
One view is that the proposal subverts the notion of equality of men and women. German Wikipedia user Martina Nolte wrote "The proposal is an attempt to enforce positive discrimination in favor of female contributors, and is highly polarizing and deviding [sic] the community." Meanwhile, an anonymous editor commented that the proposal "is antithetical to the notion that women are equal to men," to which Lightbreather responded that the comment "oversimplifies a complex problem."
The second recurring view is that it implies a direct contradiction with the principle that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia anyone can edit, and will not improve gender relations anyway. SuperHamster said, "Wikipedia is largely governed by the idea that anyone in the community can contribute to discussions; splitting off discussions to a women-only forum, in which men cannot contribute, comment, or offer constructive criticism is not something that fosters a community-driven environment. We need to find solutions that help integrate women into the community, not segregate." Lightbreather disagrees:
I think it has more potential to advance the idea that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that anyone can edit. When I first started actively editing on Wikipedia, I would have loved such a space. I desperately searched for women and found very few. I finally found a mature, woman mentor, and that saved me from quitting the project altogether.
The most prevalent view in opposition to the proposal centers on the WMF's non-discrimination policy, which states, "The Wikimedia Foundation prohibits discrimination against current or prospective users and employees on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or any other legally protected characteristics."
Several editors reasoned that an area banning homosexuals, Muslims, or another group from a particular area on the encyclopedia would be preposterous, so banning men from a particular area of the encyclopedia would be equally preposterous.
Lightbreather said she would be fine with other minorities having their own spaces on Wikipedia as well. She went on to suggest, "First, let us try to recruit and retain more women editors. If relations worsen, let us have a discussion about it that is not dominated by men or women."
Presently, the idea remains in the idea formulation stage, but come April when the individual engagement grant review committee begins to accept applications, Lightbreather plans to submit one for her idea.
Although most agree the gender gap is a problem on Wikipedia, only time will tell if Lightbreather's uniquely drastic proposal is part of the solution.
Editor's note: The author of this article has previously corresponded with the interview subject, including during a recent arbitration enforcement discussion.