“An Abysmal Statistic”

So, a tweet came across my desk this morning that intrigued me, via Seth Mnookin:

80% are self-id’d geeks RT @rosannecash: An abysmal statistic: only 15% of Wikipedia contributors are women.

The original link wasn’t working for me, but I was intrigued enough to go over to the NYT to find the story:  Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.

This caught my attention for a number of reasons. First, we have seen a lot of chatter in bioinformatics, and biology in general, on the wikification of stuff. I’ve been a bit less enthused that some folks around this. Not because it can’t work, but because of various types of barriers and biases that I thought were likely. I get the appeal–really–I do–but the reality of volunteer curation with the depth, quality, and breadth needed for biology just seems unlikely to me. There have been some successes–as reported from a recent GMOD meeting–and I applaud those. But they haven’t been enough to convince me.

But I hadn’t even considered a gender issue–at least on that scale. For me, the internet has leveled the playing field. I have just as much access as any guy to anything I want. But I have to agree–that stat about Wikipedia was surprising.

Is this true in biowikis too? If we do get grant agencies and employers to count alternative outreach and productivity metrics like a lot of us would like to see–and that people like Paul Nurse want us to be engaged with–is this going to happen there too? What’s up with this?

I don’t know, really. I do have to say I’m surprised at how few women appear in certain online places I’m hanging out. For example–BioStar. Look at the users page here–which gives the top contributors. Not all the names are gender-identifiable, and there may be more women than it appears at first glance. But it looks a little lonely to me (I’m Mary in that list, btw). And, of course, there’s the documented lower rates of women in science blogging.

And this doesn’t make sense to me. In almost all of our workshops we do, we have greater than 50% women in attendance. We’ve been counting. So they are out there–they have bioinformatics needs and questions. They have cool projects and good science we know they could talk about. Where are they?

I don’t think this is active discrimination. I haven’t been subject to any unwelcome language or anything of that sort. If I had to guess, or design a survey, I’d wonder if it was: reluctance to jump in and get started at all; fear of being wrong; other fears of being public; lack of time for what doesn’t seem to be of career value; lack of other benefits; other outlets are more attractive…. I don’t know, really.

But it makes me dismayed.

I know we want more voices–people are working to broaden the diversity in informal science outreach–here’s another example: Stumbling, imperfect allies: supporting diversity in science and the blogosphere.  And there’s a great link in there to collected articles on The women scienceblogging revolution.

We can see it…we have the data…why isn’t it different?  I really just don’t know.

6 thoughts on ““An Abysmal Statistic”

  1. James

    I can’t find at the moment so this will have to remain anecdotal, but I believe several studies have also found that women are less likely to choose usernames that reveal their gender, particularly in situations when they’re in the minority to begin with.

    Since only 15% of wikipedia contributors really are women, any new female contributors probably feel even more outnumbered than the already lopsided statistics would suggest.

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  3. Jennifer

    I keep seeing similar stats almost wherever I go, it seems. Even ScienceOnline2011 had such stats (http://twitter.com/boraz/status/30309517921095680) But they are so hard for me to believe, perhaps due to wishful thinking on my part. I thought (hoped) we had gotten beyond these sorts of issues in many biological fields.

    I began my college career as an electrical engineering major at a very competitive, male-dominated EE department at a major university in the 1980′s. Sexism was everywhere & blatant. But then I switched my major to Molecular Genetics & life was lovelier, and also much more balanced – at least male/female student ratios. Professors were still all male during my undergrad, as I remember it. Grad school included more female professors, and more female grad students than male. Since then the companies that I have worked for all have had more female scientist than male & the owners & top management have always been at least as female as male.

    I suppose I am part of the ‘dismality’ of the statistic, but I never considered that it was because I am female. I assume it is because of my introverted personality that I choose to be the ‘minor’ blogger here at OpenHelix. Social settings, even online, can bring out the ‘awkward duck’ in me – my ‘inner voice’ tells me that I should stay silent for fear of misspeaking, or boring, (or both, depending on how mean the voice is feeling on any particular day).

    I can provide a few other data points on female blogging from my family’s perspective. My mother is not focused on science, but she enthusiastically took up my challenge to blog, and did quite well for a while. However she eventually decided that she’d rather communicate via Facebook because the feedback and replies are more immediate – she describes herself as needing to ‘see people’s faces’ & thrives on replies. Commenting & photos are easier/more likely on Facebook. (Could the disparity be partially due to the format tallied?) My daughter has tried her hand at science blogging & while she liked it & was proud to have a public post, she will not do it voluntarily. While she loves to read, writing for her is still something to do only in order to complete an assignment. Blogging is just too much work to do well. (Could it be some of our blog voices are bogging on the pursuit of perfection?)

    I’m glad Mary liked to David’s post and Kate’s. I also want to add mention of a couple of other posts as well:
    * http://youngfemalescientist.blogspot.com/2010/11/be-visible-bitch.html
    * http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/01/27/celebrating-female-science-bloggers/

  4. Mary Post author

    Thanks for the insights Jennifer–all very valid! And cool links, too.

    I am also surprised to see this, over and over. One piece is just a data point, but there does seem to be a pattern here with multiple points.

    It’s funny to me because I feel like the science blogosphere is a welcoming and chatty bunch, and they crave different voices. They explored this themselves and wanted to change it, nobody had to point it out to them. I’m really surprised at that disparity still.

  5. Mary Post author

    Hi James–sorry, just found your comment in the spam folder. We got inundated this week, don’t know what happened….

    Anyway: yeah, I’ve been gender neutral on a lot of sites. And then I realized that was maybe setting up the different dynamics beyond what I wanted to control. It appeared that there weren’t women in that discussion or debate. So lately I’m trying more to appear as me.

    But sometimes it still makes me hesitate. By now I’ve been in so many flame wars (and survived) that I’m not that worried. Being new to that is very different though.

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