Is There a Gender Gap Online?

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When the online encyclopedia Wikipedia recently celebrated its 10th birthday, media outlets highlighted its stunning growth, number of articles, range of topics -- and its contributor gender gap.

A 2010 study co-sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation discovered that barely 15 percent of Wikipedia contributors are women, with the lion's share of the articles being written, edited and updated by men in their mid-20s.

"(Online) public contexts such as web forums and Wikipedia, especially if they're associated with domains such as politics, technology, or knowledge, are still overwhelmingly male-dominated," said Susan C. Herring, a professor of information science at Indiana University who specializes in online communication. "These domains are important, and women's relatively lesser participation in them is potentially a cause for concern."

But that doesn't mean women don't have a presence on the Web. A few years ago, we wondered whether there was a gender gap in terms of who was getting online. A finding from the 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project answered that.

The widely publicized Pew survey found a slightly higher number of American women online than men. And in the current social networking age, the ladies are still leading the pack. Multiple surveys, including a 2010 comScore report, consistently show more female engagement on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

So when it comes to gender and the Internet today, the more pertinent question isn't whether more men or women are surfing the Net, but whether they're surfing the Net differently.

Take online communication, for instance. Real-world gender differences translate to differences in Internet interaction as well.

"My research into the gender dynamics of online discussion forums found that men tend to be more adversarial, and to tolerate contentious debate, more than women," Herring said. "Women, in contrast, tend to be more polite and supportive, as well as less assertive … and (they) tend to be turned off by contentiousness, and may avoid online environments that they perceive as contentious."

Those dynamics help explain why women have gravitated toward sharing on social networking sites while men move toward public domain content creation like Wikipedia, where articles can erupt with editing wars between contributors.

"Sites such as Facebook are 'walled gardens' -- users can select their friends and in general have more control over who enters their online space than in open forums, where any random person can come along and harass them or start a flame war," Herring explained. "Facebook and Twitter are also oriented towards sharing personal information and social exchange, which women and girls are more drawn to do than men and boys are."

Considering women's active role on the Internet, online advertisers and sites are working to overcome certain gender barriers that have naturally arisen and finding new ways to attract larger female audiences.

In the case of Wikipedia, for instance, founder Jimmy Wales along with the Wikimedia Foundation have set a goal to increase its female contributor base to 25 percent by 2015.

And for younger generations growing up wired (or wireless) the ever-evolving Web landscape could become a more gender-neutral space with men and women equally engaged in social networking, content creation and collaboration.

"The Web seems to be evolving towards a better overall gender balance," Herring said. "That is, instead of mostly male environments, there are now some environments in which females participate very actively as well."