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User:Rohini/Adacamp Montreal

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April 13, 2015
Patterns of Gender Aggression and Harassment in Open Tech and Open Culture Communities Online
--Rohini Lakshané

Report on the talk delivered by me at Adacamp held in Montreal, Canada on April 13-14, 2015. I received a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation to participate in Adacamp. While the talk was pegged on my experience of working on Wikipedia's gender gap in India, the content is equally relevant for other, open online projects, especially those that value the anonymity of its users. The talk ended with a discussion on how to identify and combat these patterns. It was a collaborative talk delivered along with Gretchen McCulloch who spoke on Wikipedia's gender gap and Fandom. Credits to session rapporteur and participant Maja Frydrychowicz.

Gender disparity among Wikipedia's editors is well-known and well-documented.[1][2] A survey conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation in 2011 pegged the number of female contributors to the English-language Wikipedia at 9%.[3] Several outreach, advocacy and capacity-building efforts have been made to bridge Wikipedia's stark gender imbalance. In other 'openness' movements, similar efforts have been afoot to bring more women into the fold. To cite an example, the Outreach Program for Women endeavours to recruit more female coders in the world of open source software.

While the scenario of few women being online has changed, more in some parts of the world than in others, the challenges of making them stay online and establish an active presence, remain. Wikipedia, like many other open communities, has a high drop-out rate of female contributors. Many female contributors maintain identities that do not give away their gender or practise self-censorship in order to continue to be a part of the community. Several studies conducted in the past few years have attributed the gender gap to numerous reasons: women have less time left after fulfilling their tasks at home and work; antagonistic exchanges are emotionally draining; in households where there is only one Internet-enabled device, women have access to it for shorter duration, and so on. A blog post by Sue Gardner, former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, pithily lays out why women don't edit Wikipedia.

One of the ways that outreach and advocacy can work towards retaining more contributors and enabling them to participate more fruitfully is identifying patterns of aggression and harassment directed, subtly or otherwise, at them because of their gender or sexual identity.

What are some of the significant patterns that cause a contributor to censor themselves or leave, even if they have just joined?

  • Hostile environment, antagonistic exchanges: These word clouds [4] [5] display name-calling experienced by female users on Wikipedia. Wikipedia's editorial model stands on building consensus and collaboration but the spirit of debate often gives way to slings and arrows, many of which would violate Wikipedia's policy of being civil to other contributors (WP:Civil) and one of the five pillars of the crowdsourced encyclopedia. Facing hostility can be emotionally draining, especially for a new contributor, and reason enough for them to avoid contributing to certain topics, to censor themselves, or to leave the platform. Verbal violence and use of language considered unacceptable as per the community rules, is one form of harassment/ violence that is relatively easy to spot and call out, and is not uncommon.
  • Mansplaining: is more insidious than outright hostile behaviour. The intent is not constructive criticism but to humiliate the recipient, make them feel that do not belong in the space, or drive them underground. It involves the use of what Wikipedia terms "weasel words", and dismissive and condescending speech. It is difficult to address because it is less perceptible, difficult to differentiate from advice or feedback given in good faith (WP: AssumeGoodFaith), and does not violate the guideline of not attacking newbies but explaining the matter to them (WP:DontBiteTheNewbies).
  • Deletionism: is the practice of reverting edits or deleting/ nominating for deletion entire pages, projects, or other content out of relatively strict adherence to policies. Deletionism is often difficult to tell apart from very strict adherence to standards. Policies are open to interpretation, and deletionists justify their position by applying certain policies and contexts that favour their stance. In the context of issues pertaining to gender or sexuality, a pattern to look out for is the same user, IP address, or an apparent sockpuppet reverting edits, making edits, and defending them in a way that makes the article less gender-sensitive and disproportionately skewed away or towards a certain gender or orientation.
  • Subtle Powerplay/ Microaggressions: find their way into discussion boards, mailing lists and other areas of debate and discussion. A study done by the Internet Democracy Project in India documents some of the remarks that leave women feeling they are unwelcome, that do not belong in the space, or that they are an 'imposter'. "People will not be outright abusive towards you, which is a lot I face in my job. When someone does not want you to be a part of their community, they will not abuse you because they get banned for it. They will goad and nudge you in ways to tell and make sure that you are not welcome. So they will ask you, 'Oh, so when did you learn JavaScript?' knowing that you don’t know JavaScript. Just to make you feel that only those who have learnt JavaScript have the right to be there [in the forum].” [6]
One of the factors that inadvertently aids some of these patterns is the kind of sources that are considered reliable on Wikipedia (WP:RS). Newspapers, magazines, websites, books, and journals are considered acceptable references. These sources tend to reflect existing gender biases and structures of power. Studies conducted on the content published by newspapers, for example, have shown that news coverage about men is much higher than that about women.

As most of the attendees of the talk were not very well-acquainted with the intricacies of Wikipedia's Gender gap, I went on to explain some topics that were not explicitly related to the subject of the talk.

Initiatives to improve diversity and encourage new contributors on Wikipedia

  • Beginner-friendly groups such as The Tea House and the Welcoming Committee
  • Special Interest Groups (SIGs)
  • The Gender gap project
  • Edit-a-thons geared towards increasing gender-sensitive content on Wikipedia and correcting content with gender bias
  • Wikipedia tries to foster positive feedback through barnstars, Wikilove, and marking a good edit with a “thank you” or a heart icon.

How existing editors can work towards increasing diversity and encouraging new editors

  • Help get more women mentioned in references or citations in Wikipedia articles.
  • Add information about women in biographies (e.g. add the mother's name or female spouse's name in a biography article.)
  • One of the traits of communities that do have many women on them is that a lot of positive interaction happens in response to contributions.
  • Teachers can obtain support for getting students to edit Wikipedia as part of a class project.

Strategies to recruit more women editors (individuals who self-identify as women, transwomen, genderqueer, genderfluid)

  • Aim outreach efforts towards women who blog, or already have a presence online.
  • Persuade existing editors to encourage women in their family and social groups to start contributing. In the case of existing male editors, it works as the two-pronged strategy of sensitising men while empowering women.
  • Organise outreach events where the organisers and participants are all women/ individuals who largely self-identify as women.
  • Organise outreach events with gender-sensitive male editors.


  • What is needed to meet Wikipedia's notability criterion?
A: There are different requirements depending on the subject of the article: a book, a work of art, a public figure, an artist, a writer, and so on. There are stricter requirements for biography articles, especially those of living people. Being famous does not necessarily mean being notable in the Wikipedia context. Notability requirements end up being gendered; Wikipedia replicates the biases that are present in the offline world due to its reference structure (WP:RS)

There were several general questions from the attendees about editing Wikipedia, and about Wikipedia policies and best practices. These were answered by McCulloch and me in the last 15 to 20 minutes of the talk.


  1. [1] [1] Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia's Contributor List, Naom Cohen, January 30, 2011.
  2. [2] [2] WP:Clubhouse? An Exploration of Wikipedia's Gender Imbalance, Shyong (Tony) K. Lam, Anuradha Uduwage, Zhenhua Dong, Shilad Sen, David R.Musicant, Loren Terveen, John Riedl, 2011
  3. [3] [3] Women and Wikimedia survey, 2011
  4. [4] [4] Research: Communicating on Wikipedia while female
  5. [5] [5] Women and Wikimedia survey, 2011, Name-calling on English Wikipedia
  6. [6] [6] Women and Online Abuse, Internet Democracy Project, 2013