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Gruwell, Leigh. Wikipedia’s Gender-Gap Problem. C&C, May 2015. Posted 08/19/15.

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Gruwell, Leigh. “Wikipedia’s Politics of Exclusion: Gender, Epistemology, and Feminist Rhetorical (In)action.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 117-31. Web. 28 july 2015.

Leigh Gruwell examines Wikipedia’s “gender-gap problem,” the fact that only 13% of its editors are female. Gruwell recounts interviews with three women who regularly contribute to Wikipedia to argue that a number of aspects of the Wikipedia process are not welcoming to women.

Gruwell reports that Wikipedia is widely used by both men and women and has earned the approval of a number of composition scholars who see it as “a collaborative site of writing and knowledge production that emphasizes revision and challenges traditional models of textual authority and authorship” (117). Compositionists have valued wiki technology in general and have incorporated Wikipedia into classroom assignments (119). Gruwell points to scholarship that casts Wikipedia as a way of showing how texts arise through a “socially constructed, ever-unfolding process” that does not stem from “a single, unified identity” (119). Scholars also value Wikipedia’s public nature and its message that knowledge is not limited to “credentialed experts” and is, in James Purdy’s view, “framed as up for debate” (qtd. in Gruwell 119). But Gruwell argues that Wikipedia, like any technology or text, emerges from its culture and encodes “biases and assumptions” that scholars should be alert to (119).

Gruwell examines Wikipedia as a discourse community; she notes that the scholarship on such communities demonstrates how, within the community, some modes of communication are sanctioned while others are discouraged or even denied. Gruwell argues, however, that members of one discourse community are also members of other communities and that these varied simultaneous memberships shape individuals’ relationships across communities. Wikipedia, she writes, does not acknowledge the diversity or multiplicity of the people who contribute; for example, the site does not ask editors to register and minimizes the information users have to supply. As a result, Gruwell states, “it is difficult to discern who these users are” (121). She contends that a user’s “standpoint”—his or her “allegiances . . . , politics . . . , [and] social positioning”—affect the knowledge that the user incorporates into the Wikipedia interface (121).

This dissociation from users’ lived experiences is further enforced, she writes, by the site’s style preferences. She demonstrates these preferences with a screen shot of the entry for “Feminist movement,” which is deemed unacceptable because it is “written like a personal reflection or essay” rather than in the mandated “encyclopedic style” (Wikipedia entry for “Feminist movement,” qtd. in Gruwell 118). Gruwell critiques this style choice through the lens of feminist standpoint theory, arguing that Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” requirement, which, according to the site’s guidelines, asks writers “to describe debates rather than engage in them” (qtd. in Gruwell 121), excludes writing from an “embodied” positionality reflective of the kind of “lived experiences” that shape knowledge and that characterize a feminist approach to discourse (119).

Gruwell details her own experiences with Wikipedia. After regularly turning to Wikipedia for “quick run-down[s]” when needed, she fulfilled a graduate seminar assignment by enlisting as an editor (122). Discouraged by the difficulty of the “idiosyncratic” mark-up language then in use and by seeing her edits revised, Gruwell returned to using Wikipedia solely as a resource. However, the discovery that only 13% of editors were women encouraged her to see her experiences as grounds for investigation (122).

After promised help from Wikipedia recruiting women study participants failed to materialize, Gruwell located a “Wikimedia Australia gender gap listserv” (123) populated by women who contributed regularly to Wikipedia. Participants took a short survey on their experiences and then responded to a request for a longer interview over Skype or phone (123, 128-29).

Gruwell focuses on three interviews that provide useful insights into women’s relationships with the Wikipedia community (123). The three women were “relatively privileged . . . , well-educated, [and] economically advantaged” (123). Gruwell posits that these women’s positions may have enabled them to engage successfully with Wikipedia because they had both the time and the skills to do so (123). The women cited their emotional commitment to Wikipedia’s goals or to the community, with one explicitly expressing a political purpose, calling attention to issues she considered important. Gruwell notes that all three wrote “about topics that mattered to them, as individuals and professionals” (124) and with which they had a personal connection.

Gruwell’s interviews suggest three reasons why women fail to thrive at Wikipedia. First, her participants note that even professional women are still burdened by traditonal women’s duties and thus cannot prioritize becoming expert users (124-25). Second, though Gruwell notes that Wikipedia is making its coding simpler (123n4), historically learning to edit has presented a considerable learning curve. Her participants suggest that because IT has generally been a male-dominated domain, people comfortable using the interface may well more often be male. Finally, Gruwell emphasizes the degree to which the discourse expectations at Wikipedia exclude the kinds of knowledge many woman may bring to the project (124-25).

Gruwell explores these issues by examining how her three interview subjects have succeeded as Wikipedia editors. Beyond bringing some IT expertise, as one participant does, the women exhibit “a sophisticated sense” of how Wikipedia operates that enables them to meet the rigid community requirements (125). They recognize the mandate to direct their work to “the widest possible audience” (“Lekha,” qtd. in Gruwell 125); they copy and develop templates to structure their work in formats that will be accepted (126). Gruwell especially addresses the epistemological standards the women must meet. Of particular note is the need for “sourcing” that will be considered “reliable” (126). The women’s experiences in academia, Gruwell posits, makes meeting this standard easier for these women than it would be for others. However, she provides examples of how this standard excludes individual and local knowledge, as does the site’s sense of what constitutes the “notability” necessary for inclusion on Wikipedia (126). In Gruwell’s view, such practices create a “homogenous” body of information that claims authority as decisive when it fact it excludes rather than enables debate (127). Moreover, citing Andrea A. Lunsford and Lisa Ede, Gruwell identifies Wikipedia as an example of “hierarchical collaboration,” in which differences must be smoothed out rather than acknowledged (127).

Gruwell cites Wikipedia’s recent efforts to address the gender issue, but argues that these efforts do not challenge the limiting epistemology the site endorses (127). She introduces #tooFEW, a feminist group hoping to change the Wikipedia culture rather than simply “align with” it, and notes composition journals that do similar work (127-28). She reminds composition scholars that academic fields also value the “‘objective,’ detached writing” privileged by Wikipedia, and urges feminist scholars to take the “risks” involved in resisting such standards (128). Teachers should bring Wikipedia into classrooms for examination of the assumptions underlying its concept of knowledge and driving its discourse conventions (128). Finally, teaching Wikipedia critically can identify other excluded positionalities in its depiction of reality (128).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

One thought on “Gruwell, Leigh. Wikipedia’s Gender-Gap Problem. C&C, May 2015. Posted 08/19/15.

  1. Pingback: Where Free Speech is Just Cheap Talk II: You will be afraid! | wllm

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