Over the last few months there has been a discussion surrounding the fact that only 13% of Wikipedia's contributors are female. The study that discovered this statistic is the catalyst for Sue Gardner's new initiative to involve more women in Wikipedia and to increase their contribution rate to 25% by 2015.
After reading the debate in the New York Times, something that seemed obvious to me just didn't seem to really pop out from any of the debaters. Or perhaps it is obvious and other women just wouldn't say it? Women like things that look pretty..I know that a lot of people might jump out at me for over simplifying the problem and being patronising. But I really don't think that it's something that people should feel shameful about.
Men and women find different aspects of sites, cars, clothing or food appealing for whatever reason. For a lot of women something that looks down right gorgeous is more appealing and they may be more likely to form an attachment to and want to use. I'm not at all a techie, nor am I an expert in design (I'm a trained econometrician). But I am a founder and dedicated user of a wiki that has a contributor base of 94% women-in fact many are fashion bloggers who are not usually described as geeks.
This statistic is not something that I set out to achieve, quite the contrary, I wanted to make sure that just as many men as women used my wiki. But this just hasn't happened. If you take the time to look at my wiki you might see why. It's more than a little pretty, but don't just take my word for it- quora agrees with me. When I say pretty, I mean aesthetically but also it's user friendly. It's less cluttered and a little less overwhelming than traditional wikis have been- très girl friendly.
Another argument as to why it has such a high female contributor rate is the content-fashion. Many might argue that this topic is not something that appeals to many men and they may very well be correct. But a key thread that appeared throughout many of the articles I've read on this topic is that women are disinterested in technology and prefer to use social sites such as facebook or twitter. I think it's this notion that women just don't like technology that is the most damaging. Although a lot of our users who have first used the site found the syntax confusing, many of them persevered and learned how to use mediawiki effectively.
Consequently many would contact me or report that they loved using it once they got the hang of it and would then feel a form of ownership over the pages they were creating. This would be the same intrinsic motivator that causes many of the men who contribute to Wikipedia, to continue to do so. For anyone who remembers their first edit on Wikipedia and is not a programmer themselves, they may remember it as being a little daunting. It takes time and effort to learn how to contribute properly. Something that editors on Wikipedia may not be so encouraging or forgiving of?
What I've unintentionally highlighted with my own site is not that women don't like wikis or are willing to contribute to them (wikipedia's study on the site's usage revealed that 31% of their readers are women), but that they perhaps don't find the site all that intuitive or appealing to edit, ergo Wikipedia you're that really smart nerd in high school that all the cool girls secretly wanted to date but wouldn't dare.
Although the site has made strides in it's appearance lately, with a new redesign and the introduction of mediawiki v16 came an easier editing system, I think it will take a little more than that to attract women to the site. Perhaps make the help sections a little more understandable for the average non-techie and introduce some mechanisms for a more encouraging environment for learning the syntax (this would also prove helpful for new male editors)? Of course being easier on the eye wouldn't go astray.