Be bold, be humble: Wikipedia, libraries, and who spoke

Today I’m at a Wikipedia + libraries mini-conference, as a member of both worlds but also, strangely, neither. I write software for the Wikimedia Foundation (specifically the Wikipedia Library, which is among the conveners). I’m a librarian by training, and the President-Elect of LITA. But I also don’t identify as a Wikipedian (my edit count is, last I checked, 5), I don’t work in a library, and I have never worked in an academic library (whereas the other convener is the Association of Research Libraries).

This is a great excuse to be an observer, and try out a tool that was going around Twitter a month ago:

It’s a set of paired timers: “a dude” and “not a dude”. You click the button that represents the speaker. At the end, you have a count of how much time each category held the floor. In our first session today, 52% of the speaking time was men.

Sounds equal! Except…42% of the room appeared to be men. And as I looked around, I realized that all but perhaps one of the 10 men had spoken at least once, whereas about 5 of the 14 women had said nothing at all in our morning session. (Myself included; I was too busy processing the meta-meeting, tracking all of this.)

“Be bold”, said the coffee mug in front of me. Who is bold?

Interrupters are bold; I tracked interruptions, too. About ⅔ of the interruptions were by men (though, somewhat to my surprise, most of those were interrupting other men). Of the other interruptions, the ones by women — I did not track so I cannot say for sure, but I believe 100% of them were by two women, both of whom are highly involved Wikipedians.

(I suspect, in fact, though I did not track this either, that women’s propensity to speak correlated with the status they had in these spheres coming into the room: all the women here are librarians, but for the most part the women who who spoke were either widely recognized Wikipedians or library directors.)

“Be bold,” says the coffee mug, but so many librarians have worked in places where boldness is not valued, where indeed they have been punished for it.

I tried tracking self-undercutting behavior — “Hopefully I’m not speaking for everyone too much…” and “I don’t know what other, more technical people than me might say” and a staggering number of instances of “just”, for instance — but I walked back on that, because there are so many grey areas (e.g. sometimes “just” is not deployed to undermine one’s competence or status) that I had no coherent way to code it. But insofar as I tried to count, when a speaker labeled her contribution as possibly lacking value or her competence as possibly being insufficient, in every instance but one it was a woman.

“Be bold,” says the coffee mug, but we know in the room that librarians new to editing Wikipedia will need some acculturation to thrive in that process, and vice versa that Wikipedians working with libraries have their own cultural knowledge divide to cross.

Because — it is vice versa, too, isn’t it. It’s so easy to look at that value of boldness, one of the most celebrated in Wikipedia, or at the ways that male-coded discourse patterns aid in gaining or establishing status, and think, dammit, women should stop saying “just” all the time. But — even though I am often quietly flipping out inside when people undercut themselves — I saw the value of not being bold in the room, too. These humbler discourse patterns serve to recognize others’ contributions, others’ competence. They serve to hold space in the room for others to contribute, to build on or critique what’s being said, to establish their own expertise. They can represent the shakiness of not recognizing one’s own skill, yes — but they can also represent the humility in recognizing others’ skill. They allow space for others to have feelings on the topic that may not accord with the speakers’, yet retain legitimacy.

This is…not really how Wikipedia works. The encyclopedia that anyone can edit is the encyclopedia where everyone has the right to the floor. And there’s a liberation in that — on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog and the things you say matter — but there’s also an oppression, in that it rewards everyone who’s never stopped to think that maybe they’re not the expert. It rewards an investment in being right, but not in noticing the emotional undercurrents of the room, in building relationships over time and ensuring stakeholders are identified and heard, which is very much how well-run libraries tend to operate. It rewards the quick and assertive, whereas I spent today watching participation be more equal and distributed when there was structured moderation, and slide into literally 90% male voices in the last ten minutes of the day, when people were feeling punchy and discussion was totally open.

The gender gap stalks this meeting, every moment. Wikipedia editors are about 90% male; librarians are about 80% female (unless, of course, you’re in a room that draws heavily from upper management, as we are today). Wikipedia has a notorious, unsolved, and frequently gendered harassment problem. Unless you are content to be exceptionally disingenuous, you cannot talk about bringing librarians into Wikipedia without talking about this.

And here I am today not talking, because I’m listening instead. Because I’m counting. (Because I am, if I’m to be entirely honest, uncertain if I have anything to say in this context, undercutting myself in this very parenthesis.) Because I’m seeing a problem so much more difficult and more slippery than training, or documentation, or policy…our genders as ghosts in the very language we speak. Boldness as liberatory only for the bold, creating a space where the strengths of female-coded discourse patterns are pushed off to the margins, where humility looks like weakness.

I may go through a lot of coffee tomorrow.

"Be Bold" Wikipedia coffee mug

7 thoughts on “Be bold, be humble: Wikipedia, libraries, and who spoke

  1. This is so great, Andromeda. I have seen the emotional undercurrents in a room get run right over in the drive to assertion – for which people are rewarded from a very young age. Actually I see little ability to engage in inquiry and self-inquiry. These tend not to be present in many meetings and I have no doubt that the gender aspect of this is as you describe. Thank you for capturing this in such an articulate manner.


  2. Thanking a friend for taking the time out of her conference to do the emotional work is also emotional work, but it’s work I’m happy to do. Thank you, Andromeda.


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