Wikipedia:Writing about women

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When writing about women on Wikipedia, make sure the content and titles do not inadvertently use sexist language or promote sexist stereotypes.

Women comprise between 8.5 and 16.1 percent of editors on the English Wikipedia.[1] This means that most articles are written by men, as are most of the content policies, including the notability and referencing policies. Those policies in turn determine which articles about women can be hosted, and frame many of the ways in which they are written. The combined effects of personnel and policies, then, may be responsible for the gender imbalance of our content. As of January 2015 only 15.5 percent of the 1,445,021 biographies on the English Wikipedia were about women. As a result of sourcing and notability issues, almost all biographies before the 20th century are of men.[2]

Achieving gender balance, diversity and fairness is in the interests of all editors and readers, female and male. This page may help to identify the subtle and more obvious ways in which titles, language, images and linking practices on the English Wikipedia can discriminate against women.

Male is not the default[edit]

Phillis Wheatley frontispiece (cropped), 1834.jpg

Avoid language and images that make male the Self and female the Other.[3] Researchers have found that Wikipedia articles about women are more likely to contain words such as woman, female and lady, than articles about men are to contain the male equivalents. This suggests that editors see male as the default or "null gender," and that biographies are assumed to be of men unless otherwise stated.[4]

Avoid labeling a woman as a female author or female politician, unless her gender is explicitly relevant to the article. In April 2013 several media stories noted that editors on the English Wikipedia had begun moving women from Category:American novelists to Category:American women novelists, while leaving men in the main category.[5] Linguists call this markedness: treating a man who is a writer as a "writer" and a woman as a "woman writer" presents women as "marked," or the Other, requiring an adjective to differentiate them from the male default.[6]

Use surnames[edit]

See also: MOS:LASTNAME

Use caution when referring to a woman by her first name, which can serve to infantilize her. As a rule, after the initial introduction ("Susan Smith is an Australian anthropologist"), refer to women by their surnames ("Smith is the author of ..."). Here is an example of the inappropriate use of a woman's first name.

First names are sometimes needed for clarity. For example, when writing about a family with the same surname, after the initial introductions they can all be referred to by first names. A first name might also be used when a surname is long and double-barreled, and its repetition would be awkward to read and write. When a decision is made to use first names for editorial reasons, consider using them for both women and men.

Writing the lead[edit]

Importance of the lead[edit]

"First woman"

[T]he Bechdel-inspired Finkbeiner-test about scientific women ... mention[s] that an article about a woman does not pass the test if it mentions "How she's the 'first woman to ....'" Despite being informal, the Finkbeiner-test raises awareness on how gender becomes more important than the actual achievements of a person.

— Graells-Garrido et al (2015)[7]

Graells-Garrido et al (2015) write that the lead is a "good proxy for any potential biases expressed by Wikipedia contributors."[2] The lead may be the only part of an article that is read—especially on mobile devices—and infoboxes are an important source of metadata (see DBpedia), so pay particular attention to how women are described at the top of an article. For example, the word spouse is more likely to appear in a woman's infobox than in a man's.[8] Again, giving women "marked" treatment can convey subtle assumptions to readers.

First woman[edit]

See also: Finkbeiner test

Avoid language that places being a woman ahead of the subject's achievements. Opening the lead with "A was the first woman to do X" or "A was the first female X" immediately defines her in terms of men who have done the same thing, and can inadvertently imply: "She may not have been a very good X, but at least she was the first woman."[7] For example, as of 10 March 2015, Wikipedia describes Russian chemist Anna Volkova solely in terms of four first-woman benchmarks.[9]

When prioritizing that the subject is a "first woman," make sure it really is the only notable material available about her. Wherever possible start with her own position or accomplishments. The biographies of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, as of the same date, begin with the positions they held, and only then say that they are the only women to have held them.[10]

Relationships[edit]

Defining women by their relationships[edit]

The Little Bride Ethel.jpeg

Researchers have found that Wikipedia articles about women are more likely to discuss their family and romantic relationships and sexuality, while articles about men are more likely to contain words about cognitive processes and work.[11] For example, women's biographies mention marriage and divorce more often than men's biographies do.[12] Biographies on the English Wikipedia that refer to the subject's divorce are 4.4 times more likely to be about a woman. The figures are similar on the German, Russian, Spanish, Italian and French Wikipedias.[13]

Wherever possible, avoid defining a notable woman, particularly in the title or first sentence, in terms of her relationships (wife/mother/daughter of). Do not begin a biography with: "Susan Smith is the daughter of historian Frank Smith and wife of actor John Jones. She is known for her work on game theory." An example of the kind of title the Wikipedia community has rejected is Sarah Brown (wife of Gordon Brown) (now a redirect to Sarah Jane Brown).

A woman's relationships will be prominently discussed if essential to her notability, but try to focus on her own notable roles or accomplishments first. For example, consider starting articles about women who were First Lady of the United States, which is a significant role, with "served as First Lady of the United States from [year] to [year]," rather than "is/was the wife of President X."

Internal links[edit]

The focus on relationships in articles about women affects internal linking and therefore search-engine results. One study found that women on Wikipedia are more linked to men than men are linked to women. When writing an article about a woman, if you include an internal link to an article about a man, consider visiting the latter to check that it includes reciprocal information about the relationship; if it merits mention in the woman's article, it is likely germane to his. Failure to mention the relationship in both can affect search algorithms in a way that discriminates against women.[14]

Language[edit]

Gender-neutral language[edit]

A woman as the Magdalen writing at a table in an interior.jpg

Use gender-neutral nouns when describing professions and positions: actor, author, aviator, bartender, chair, comedian, firefighter, flight attendant, hero, poet, police officer. Avoid adding gender (female pilot, male nurse) unless the topic requires it.

Avoid referring to human beings as man or mankind; sentences such as "man has difficulty in childbirth" illustrate that these are not inclusive generic terms.[15] Depending on the context, use humanity, humankind, human beings, women and men, or men and women.

Word order[edit]

The order in which groups are introduced – man and woman, male and female, Mr. and Mrs., husband and wife, brother and sister – has implications for their status, so consider alternating the order as you write.[16]

Pronouns[edit]

The use of the generic he (masculine pronouns such as he, him, his) in sentences that might refer to women too is increasingly avoided.[17] Instead of "each student must hand in his assignment," try rewriting the sentence in the plural: "students must hand in their assignments," unless the context is a boys' school. Other options include:

  • writing out the alternatives – he or she, him or her, his or her; him/her, his/her;
  • using a composite form for the nominative – s/he or s(he);[18][19]
  • using feminine pronouns ("each student must hand in her assignment") – this is often done to signal the writer's rejection of the generic he,[20] the "linguistic equivalent of affirmative action";[18]
  • alternating between the masculine and feminine in different paragraphs or sections;[18]
  • rewriting the sentence to remove the pronoun ("student assignments must be handed in");
  • using the plural even when referring to singular nouns or pronouns; this is known as the singular they ("each student must hand in their assignment"), and is most often used with someone, anyone, everyone, no one.[18][21]
Singular they
Nominative
(subject)
Accusative
(object)
Dependent possessive pronoun Independent possessive pronoun Reflexive
When I tell someone a joke, they laugh. When I greet a friend, I hug them. When someone leaves the library, their book is stamped. A friend lets me borrow theirs. Each person drives there themselves (or, nonstandard, themself).

Marriage[edit]

When discussing a married woman, consider writing "A is married to B," instead of casting the male as possessor: "A is the wife of B." Avoid the expression man and wife, which generalizes the husband and marks the wife.

Avoid referring to a woman as Mrs. John Smith. When a source does this (for example, in an old citation), try to find and use the woman's own name, as in: Susan Smith (cited as Mrs. J. Smith), Book Title, Publisher, 1910.

When introducing a woman as the parent of an article subject, avoid the common construction, "Smith was born in 1960 to John Smith and his wife, Susan". Consider whether there is an editorial reason to begin with the father's name. If not, try "Susan Jones and her husband, John Smith" or, if the woman has taken her husband's name, "Susan Smith, née Jones, and her husband, John, or "Susan and John Smith." Where there are several examples of "X and spouse" in one article, alternate placing the male and female names first.

Girls, ladies[edit]

Do not refer to adult women as girls or ladies,[22] unless using common expressions, proper nouns or titles that cannot otherwise be avoided (e.g., leading lady, lady-in-waiting, ladies' singles, Ladies' Gaelic Football Association, First Lady). The inappropriate use of ladies can be seen in Miss Universe 1956, which as of 12 March 2015 describes the event as having had "30 young ladies in the competition," and Mixer dance, which discusses "the different numbers of men and ladies."[23]

Images[edit]

Kitagawa Utamaro ukiyo-e woodblock print.jpg

Avoid images that objectify women. In particular, do not use pornography images in articles that are not about pornography. Except when the topic is necessarily tied to it (examples: downblouse and upskirt), avoid examples of male-gaze imagery, where women are presented as objects of heterosexual male appreciation.[24] When adding an image of part of a woman's body, consider cropping the image to focus on that body part.

When illustrating articles about women's health and bodies, make sure the image accurately represents the topic and would not mislead readers. Be particularly careful when using "before and after" images that purport to show the benefits of cosmetic treatment, including surgery. Check that the images really are of the same woman, and that the source of the images can be trusted. Use authoritative medical images wherever possible.

Medical issues[edit]

When writing about women's health, make sure medical claims are sourced according to the medical sourcing guideline, WP:MEDRS. As a rule this means avoiding primary sources, which in this context refers to papers about studies in which the authors participated. Rely instead on peer-reviewed secondary sources that offer an overview of several studies, such as systematic reviews published by medical journals.

Secondary sources acceptable for medical claims on Wikipedia include review articles (systematic reviews and literature reviews), meta-analyses and medical guidelines. To find these sources, enter the search term (e.g., mammography) into the National Institutes of Health search engine PubMed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/, and select "reviews" from the "article types" menu; a PubMed search for review articles on "mammography" brings up this list. Or select "customize," then the article type (e.g., meta-analysis or guideline). The Cochrane Library is another good source of medical review articles.

To check an article type on PubMed (e.g., P. M. Otto, C. B. Blecher, "Controversies surrounding screening mammography", Missouri Medicine, 111(5), Sep–Oct 2014), open the drop-down menu "Publication Types, MeSH Terms" under the abstract; in this case, the classification is "review." When in doubt, ask for help at Wikipedia talk:WikiProject Medicine.

References[edit]

  1. ^ For 8.1 percent, "Wikipedia Editors' Survey", Wikimedia Foundation, April 2011, p. 2.

    For 16.1 percent, Benjamin Mako Hill, Aaron Shaw, "The Wikipedia Gender Gap Revisited: Characterizing Survey Response Bias with Propensity Score Estimation", PLOS ONE, 26 June 2013.

  2. ^ a b Eduardo Graells-Garrido, Mounia Lalmas, Filippo Menczer, "First Women, Second Sex: Gender Bias in Wikipedia", arXiv, 9 February 2015, p. 3.
  3. ^ For a discussion about "othering," Allyson Jule, A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender, Multilingual Matters, 2008, p. 13ff.
  4. ^ Claudia Wagner, David Garcia, Mohsen Jadidi, Markus Strohmaier, "It's a Man's Wikipedia? Assessing Gender Inequality in an Online Encyclopedia", arXiv, 26 January 2015.

    For a summary of the research:

    "Computational Linguistics Reveals How Wikipedia Articles Are Biased Against Women", MIT Technology Review, 2 February 2015.

    John Paul Titlow, "More Like Dude-ipedia: Study Shows Wikipedia's Sexist Bias", Fast Company, 2 February 2015.

  5. ^ Amanda Filipacchi (24 April 2013). "Wikipedia's Sexism Toward Female Novelists". The New York Times. 

    Alison Flood (25 April 2013). "Wikipedia bumps women from 'American novelists' category". The Guardian. 

  6. ^ For marked and unmarked, Deborah Tannen, "Marked Women, Unmarked Men", The New York Times Magazine, 20 June 1993.
  7. ^ a b Graells-Garrido et al, 2015, p. 8.
  8. ^ Graells-Garrido et al, 2015, p. 4.
  9. ^ Anna Volkova, accessed 10 March 2015.
  10. ^ Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher, accessed 10 March 2015.
  11. ^ Graells-Garrido et al, 2015, pp. 2, 5–6, 8.

    p. 2: "Sex-related content is more frequent in women biographies than men's, while cognition-related content is more highlighted in men biographies than women's."

    p. 8: "[T]he greater frequency and burstiness of words related to cognitive mechanisms in men, as well as the more frequent words related to sexuality in women, may indicate a tendency to objectify women in Wikipedia. ... [M]en are more frequently described with words related to their cognitive processes, while women are more frequently described with words related to sexuality. In the full biography text, the cognitive processes and work concerns categories are more bursty in men biographies, meaning that those aspects of men's lives are more important than others at the individual level."

  12. ^ David Bamman, Noel Smith. "Unsupervised Discovery of Biographical Structure from Text", Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, 2, 2014 (pp. 363–376), p. 369: "[B]iographies of women on Wikipedia disproportionately focus on marriage and divorce compared to those of men."
  13. ^ Wagner et al, 2015, p. 6.
  14. ^ Wagner et al, 2015, p. 9: "[W]omen on Wikipedia tend to be more linked to men than vice versa, which can put women at a disadvantage in terms of – for example – visibility or reachability on Wikipedia. In addition, we find that women's romantic relationships and family-related issues are much more frequently discussed in their Wikipedia articles than in articles on men. This suggests differences in how the Wikipedia community conceptualizes notable men and women. Because modern search and recommendation algorithms exploit both structural and lexical information on Wikipedia, women might be discriminated when it comes to ranking articles about notable people. To reduce such effects, the editor community could pay particular attention to the gender balance of links included in articles about men and women, and could adopt a more gender-balanced vocabulary when writing articles about notable people."
  15. ^ Jule 2008, p. 14.
  16. ^ Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition, American Psychological Association, 2009, pp. 72–73. Peter Hegarty, "Ladies and gentlemen: Word order and gender in English," in Greville G. Corbett (ed.), The Expression of Gender, Walter de Gruyter, 2014, p. 69.

    Also see Thomas Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique, 1553, cited in Bodine 1975, p. 134: "Some will set the Carte before the horse, as thus. My mother and my father are both at home, even as thoughe the good man of the house ware no breaches, or that the graye Mare were the better Horse. And what thoughe it often so happeneth (God wotte the more pitte) yet in speaking at the leaste, let us kepe a natural order, and set the man before the woman for maners Sake."

  17. ^ Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 492.
  18. ^ a b c d Huddleston and Pullum 2002, p. 493.
  19. ^ Elisabetta Adami, "To each reader his, their, or her pronoun," in Antoinette Renouf, Andrew Kehoe (eds.), Corpus Linguistics: Refinements and Reassessments, Rodopi, 2009 (pp. 281–307), pp, 294–295.
  20. ^ Sally McConnel-Ginet, "Gender and its relation to sex: The myth of 'natural' gender," in Corbett 2014, p. 33; Adami 2009, pp. 297–298.

    Also see Charly Wilder, "Ladies First: German Universities Edit Out Gender Bias", Der Spiegel, 5 July 2013.

  21. ^ For a history of singular they, Ann Bodine, "Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular 'they,' sex-indefinite 'he,' and 'he or she'", Language in Society, 4, 1975 (pp. 129–146), p. 131ff.

    Also see Neal Whitman, "Do's and Don'ts for Singular 'They'", vocabulary.com, 4 March 2010.

  22. ^ For lady and ladies as potentially patronizing or trivializing, Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Language and Woman's Place (first published 1975) in Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Mary Bucholtz (ed.), Language and Woman's Place: Text and Commentaries, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 52–56; for girl, p. 56.

    Janet Holmes, "Power, Ladies and Linguistic Politeness in Language and Woman's Place," in Lakoff and Bucholtz 2004, pp. 151–157.

    Penelope Eckert, Sally McConnell-Ginet, Language and Gender, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 38–39: Lakoff argued that lady was a "superficial gallantry that helped keep women well-behaved and ineffectual."

    Janet Holmes, "Ladies and gentlemen: corpus analysis and linguistic sexism," in Christian Mair, Marianne Hundt (eds.), Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory (papers from the 20th International Conference on English Language Research on Computerized Corpora, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1999), 2000, pp. 143–155.

  23. ^ "Miss Universe 1956", Mixer dance, accessed 12 March 2015.
  24. ^ "Male gaze", Geek Feminism Wiki.

Further reading[edit]

General
Books, papers
(chronological)
  • Robin Lakoff, "Language and women's place", Language in Society, 2(1), April 1973, pp. 45–80.
  • Robin Lakoff, Language and Women's Place, New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
  • Ann Bodine, "Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular 'they,' sex-indefinite 'he,' and 'he or she'", Language in Society, 4, 1975, pp. 129–146.
  • Casey Miller, Kate Swift, Words and Women: New Language in New Times, Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1976.
  • Dale Spender, Man Made Language, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.
  • Casey Miller, Kate Swift, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, Lippincott and Crowell, 1980.
  • Sally McConnell-Ginet, "The origins of sexist language in discourse," in S. J. White and V. Teller (eds.), Discourse and Reading in Linguistics, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1984, pp. 123–135.
  • Francine Harriet Frank, Paula A. Treichler, Language, Gender, and Professional Writing, Modern Language Association of America, 1989.
  • Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory, London: Routledge, 1985; revised 2nd edition, 1992.
  • Deborah Cameron (ed.), The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader, London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Julia Penelope, Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers' Tongues, New York: Pergamon Press, 1990.
  • Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, New York: William Morrow, 1990.
  • Penelope Eckert, Sally McConnell-Ginet, Language and Gender, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Anne Curzon, Gender Shifts in the History of English, University of Cambridge Press, 2003.
  • Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman's Place (original text), in Robin Lakoff, Mary Bucholtz (ed.), Language and Woman's Place: Text and Commentaries, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Susan Ehrlich, Miriam Meyerhoff, Janet Holmes (eds.), The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2005; 2nd edition, 2014.
  • Allyson Jule, A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2008.
  • Greville G. Corbett (ed.), The Expression of Gender, Walter de Gruyter, 2014.