Laundry, Wikipedia and Cognitive Surplus

Several people have asked me what I think about this article on the gender gap in Wikipedia contributions. A study, which seems reasonably well conducted, found that under 13% of contributors to Wikipedia are women. Now everyone wants to know what it means – so here’s my take.

I’m not surprised by this finding, given what the research says about womens’ experiences. For example, as the article points out, women are socialized to think their opinions aren’t important. (See Sadker & Sadker’s research on the systematic ways girls get ignored in school, just for example.) The Internet is also full of misogynistic assholes who defend their behavior on ideological grounds. Encounter enough of those guys, and you don’t necessarily want to participate in forums where they’ll be.

What I am surprised about is that no one’s mentioned the leisure gap in this context. Clay Shirky’s brilliant article on cognitive surplus points out that Wikipedia is a product of leisure. But leisure, in our society, is not equally distributed. Young people have more leisure than older ones. This is because young people tend to have fewer time-consuming life responsibilities, such as children and extremely demanding jobs – and we see that reflected in the average age of Wikipedia contributors. Men have more leisure than women, on the other hand, because women subsidize the free time of men. We may be working fewer hours as a society, but the laundry still has to get done – and because women are doing it, men end up with the time to contribute to Wikipedia.

Just consider one example: married women self-report doing 70% of housework, while married men self-report 37%. You’ll notice those numbers add up to more than 100%, so let’s suppose women are big whiners and the mens’ numbers are correct. This means women would actually be doing 63% of housework, not 70%. But notice! Even by this most lenient standard, women are doing almost twice as much housework as men. This does not even get into other traditionally female responsibilities like eldercare, family relationship management, or the maintenance of social networks, nor does it address the fact that women are generally assigned low-control tasks that break up their leisure into dribs and drabs, while men are more likely to have uninterrupted chunks of free time. When you look at these realities – and how they’re domestically enforced – it’s a lot less surprising that cognitive-surplus activities like Wikipedia are often dominated by men.

Wikipedia is ultimately built by the people with the most free time. In our society that means men’s time, subsidized by women.

2 thoughts on “Laundry, Wikipedia and Cognitive Surplus”

  1. While I agree with the claim that men’s free time is subsidized by women, I’m not sure this is explains much to Wikipedia’s gender gap, as only 25% percent of Wikipedia contributors are over 30 years old.
    While the UNU study didn’t ask about marital status, my guess is an overwhelming majority of edits are made by contributors are unmarried and without children – a category where differences in leisure shouldn’t be drastic.

    1. I know … I want them to publish gender statistics by marital status!! I couldn’t find it in the paper, but maybe they’ll publish fuller data later.

      I do know that women still marry younger than men, on average, and the average age of marriage for both men and women is under thirty. That’s why I don’t think the laundry hypothesis explains the full difference, but I do think it’s an important thing to remember, even for relatively young people. We can’t treat leisure time like a uniformly distributed commodity, because it’s not.

      Gender isn’t the only thing that affects people’s real-world chances of having leisure time, of course – I deliberately did not even bring up class, race, culture, country of origin, or any of a thousand other things. I just think it’s important to remember that the Internet does not exist in some idealized vacuum, and it’s likely to reflect not only our social biases but our material ones as well.

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