Female authors wanted: wikipedia wants to become more female

When she writes articles for wikipedia or exchanges news, sarah steirch signs herself as "missvain". Yet she is usually referred to as "he" in chats and e-mails. The fact that most people think she’s a man is no coincidence: according to an internal survey from 2010, just eight percent of the thousands of volunteers and less than a third of the tens of millions of users of the popular online encyclopedia are female.

"I was used to being the only woman in the room. I was just like one of the boys," says steirch in an interview with the dpa news agency. That changed when she became aware of the huge gender gap on wikipedia. Since then, she has been working within the community to get more women involved in the internet reference work.

In view of the anonymity of the internet, many people only become aware of the problem at the annual meetings of the wikipedians, because that’s when it becomes obvious. This was also the case at this year’s wikimania, which took place over the weekend in washington: the majority of the attendees were male. "Many people say it would be great to have more women on the team," says steirch. "But others don’t care because they think the internet is gender neutral."

"It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy," said the chairman of wikimedia deutschland, pavel richter. She says it’s great when 92 percent of employees are "mannerly". This leads to the fact that there are fewer articles interesting for women and thus also fewer female readers. It’s no wonder that it’s more difficult to get women interested in working on wikipedia.

Wikipedia founder jimmy wales also admitted to the problem at the annual conference. He gave a concrete example: as soon as an article about the wedding dress of prince william’s wife kate middleton appeared on wikipedia, many people got upset and demanded that the text be deleted immediately.

"It would be a gross error to claim that such things are trivial women’s gossip and therefore don’t belong in an encyclopedia," he warned. After all, there are hundreds of articles on the linux operating system in wikipedia, for example, that only computer freaks are really interested in.

But the content is not the only problem. The not-so-easy-to-use program for writing and editing articles also poses a rough challenge for women – as well as men. "Women want a different design," says steirch. "Most of them don’t believe they can edit text."The makers of wikipedia have recently taken an important step to change this: in june, they introduced a test version of a more user-friendly program for editing articles.

Steirch sees the key to increasing the number of women in the media as being to talk to women in an environment they are familiar with. She herself launched an online project called "teahouse" that aims to bring women closer to wikipedia. With another initiative, so-called campus ambassadors try to get students and professors excited about wikipedia. This project has also been successful with women – even abroad: at the university of alexandria in egypt, more than half of the campus ambassadors are women.

Mary gardiner, co-founder of an initiative to involve women in open source technologies, called on wikipedians at the annual meeting to be more open. "A good first step would be to get out of one’s comfort zone."You have to read a lot about others before you can really talk to them. Your advice: "keep your mouth shut and just listen to what you hear!"