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Not Enough Women at Wikipedia?

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by Pierre Lemieux

...women need state encouragement to do some of the one million edits that are made on Wikipedia every day. Presumably, this will promote the liberation of women.

girl power.jpg The Swedish government, or at least its foreign minister, wants more women to be volunteer editors on Wikipedia ("Sweden tries to increase gender equality on the web," The Economist, March 8, 2018). The foreign ministry hosted "WikiGap edit-a-thons" in 54 of its embassies on March 8th.

It is a strange idea. Anybody is already free to edit entries or create new ones on Wikipedia, often under the cover of anonymity. The problem apparently is that 90% of the content is created by individuals of the bad sex, most of them under 40 (according to survey data), and that 80% of Wikipedia biographies are about males. The Economist quips, "you cannot assume that all women want to write about women."

The main question is, what should government do in that business, even if it is an angelic foreign government spending the money of its own taxpayers? The answer seems to be that women need state encouragement to do some of the one million edits that are made on Wikipedia every day. Presumably, this will promote the liberation of women.


It is useful to see what John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) said about the liberation of women in his 1869 book, The Subjection of Women. Mill was among the best-known philosophers and economists of the 19th century. In 1851, he was finally able to marry his long-time companion Harriet Taylor, whose husband had died two years earlier. Mill credited Taylor for having a great influence on him.

Mill had good reasons to promote the emancipation of women, who were discriminated against by laws and public institutions. The state-imposed marriage contract legally deprived a married woman of personal property and made her totally subject to her husband. Getting out of this contract was especially difficult for women. Many government jobs were closed to members of the fair sex, except for the Queen's position-- provided of course one was a member of the royal family and in line for succession. Women could not run for Parliament or even vote in parliamentary elections.

Private or quasi-private discrimination also existed, but was probably on the wane. British women were not admitted to the bar. Nor were they admitted to medical schools and many universities. Oxford University, a nominally private institution, did not start accepting women until some years after the publication of The Subjection of Women. The very year the book appeared, a separate college for women was created at Cambridge University (also nominally private, as I understand it). The University of London (a state university) was already admitting women, although not yet to its examinations and degrees. Note that Harvard University was still closed to women.

Mill's attack primarily targeted discriminatory laws and public opinion, not the right to privately discriminate. He accepted that some emancipated women could have preferences different from men and choose, for example, to have children and devote all their time to their family. He did not pretend to know what women should want. One can read The Subjection of Women as a precursor to the modern economic theory of marriage and the family, where each spouse specializes in the tasks in which each has a comparative advantage. As usual, Mill was very much an individualist.

Mill argued that the emancipation of women would benefit everybody in society, both women and men, by making all contribute to the activities in which each performed best. He argued that legal discrimination is either harmful or superfluous. It is harmful if it prevents women from competing. It is superfluous if (most) women cannot or will not anyway compete in certain jobs or tasks. Mill saw no reason to legally prevent women from competing in any field, but no reason to specifically help them either. He wrote:

What women by nature cannot do, it is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing. What they can do, but not so well as the men who are their competitors, competition suffices to exclude them from; since nobody asks for protective duties and bounties in favour of women; it is only asked that the present bounties and protective duties in favour of men should be recalled. If women have a greater natural inclination for some things than for others, there is no need of laws or social inculcation to make the majority of them do the former in preference to the latter.

It is not clear to me whether or not Mill believed that there were activities that women could not do "by nature." He was anyway happy to let free interactions find out.

Although revolutionary for the times, Mill's ideas were not surprising for a classical liberal. The idea is simple: all individuals should have the same rights, even if they choose to exercise them differently. Every adult is an adult. Mill would not have favored any sort of affirmative action.

Wikipedia is a private organization that should be free to discriminate against, or in favor of, any group. I am sure that it does, in practice, discriminate against functional illiterates or the computer-challenged. It is obvious that it does not discriminate against women, if only because the work can be anonymous; and the foundation running the online encyclopedia needs as much competent and free labor as it can get.

There may be some aesthetic reasons or personal preferences for wanting some individuals in society--say, women or perhaps men over 40--to spend more time editing Wikipedia. However, diversity per se is not necessarily a convincing reason. "We want the best content," says somebody at Wikipedia Sweden. "By bringing in a more diverse group of people, particularly women, this leads to a better set of articles." Other things being equal, yes. But other things are not equal, and there is also an argument for letting the external editors self-select in function of their interests, motivation, passions, and knowledge. All this is better left for Wikipedia to decide anyway, without the help or hindrance of the state.

There is no serious reason to think that the Swedish or any government should push for more women--or old men or whites or blacks or whatever--on Wikipedia. Such interventions reinforce the dangerous idea that the state should discriminate among its subjects by helping some to compete against others. The author of The Subjection of Women would have agreed. As Alan Kors, the University of Pennsylvania historian, wrote in : Social Philosophy and Policy

The economic conclusions of The Subjection of Women would appear to be an invitation to an economic life free of governmental interference.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market , Liberty




COMMENTS (5 to date)
Matthias Görgens writes:

The Swedish initiative is an easy target to make fun off. But why the need to appeal to two hundred year old authority?

Pierre Lemieux writes:

@Matthias Görgens: I see two reasons. First, referring to Mill allows us to see the distinction between real and false discrimination by comparing the situation of women then and now. Second, knowledge is cumulative, so we may want to know what Mill, an important classical-liberal theorist, thought of the issue.

Jeff writes:

Now apply the same reasoning to affirmative action programs and see how long it is before you're called a racist.

TMC writes:

"since nobody asks for protective duties and bounties in favour of women;"

That ship has sure sailed.

Mark Z writes:

Maybe, instead of encouraging more women to edit wikipedia, we should encourage more men to not to, and instead do something more productive with their time? Why is it always assumed that when men and women make different choices, that men are making the right choice and women must be pushed toward making the 'male' choice, and men penalized for it? Maybe men are the foolish ones for expending so much time editing wikipedia? Maybe it's men who are getting the raw deal (or making the foolish choice) by trading a few years of life or health for a slightly higher salary?

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