Women and Wikipedia
Women's history, what we're missing, and why it matters
Sarah Stierch holds a Wikimedia Foundation community fellowship for the encouragement of women's participation in Wikimedia projects. In this report she addresses – in conversation with four interested interlocutors – the topic of Women's History Month, why it should matter to Wikipedians, what the project loses in the gender gap, and what's to be done about it.
The views expressed are those of the author and interviewees only, and do not necessarily represent those of The Signpost or its staff.
March is Women's History Month, a time for people around the world to celebrate women's history. While I believe every day should be women's history day, I also feel we should take advantage of the month of March to bring awareness to the lack of coverage about women's history on Wikipedia, and concerns about the gender gap in Wikipedia: only 9% of our active contributors are women. To mark Women's History Month, WikiWomen's History Month has been planned and events are taking place around the world in the Wikimedia movement to promote improving women's history on Wikipedia and inspire women to get involved in our projects.
As a Wikimedia Foundation community fellow, who is focusing on the gender gap, I wanted to learn more about what Wikipedians and Wikimedia supporters thought about the importance of women's voices being represented in the encyclopaedia. I spoke with three Wikipedians:
I also spoke with Valerie Aurora, co-founder of The Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization that supports women in open technology and culture.
Why is it important to improve Wikipedia's coverage of women's history? Why do you feel it's important for more women to contribute to Wikipedia?
- Jgmikulay: Wikipedia is a gateway to knowledge for millions of people. It's important that women be involved in the construction of that knowledge. Also, as the encyclopedia continues to struggle for legitimacy in places like academia or cultural fields, it needs to become more representative.
- Kippelboy: One of the five pillars of Wikipedia says "Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view". If we strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view in a balanced and impartial manner, we need women to be represented in this project.
- Whiteghost.ink: Women's history and women in history had been left out of the story for a long time in academia and literature and eventually a big effort had to be made to redress that before any interpretation of their contributions could be made. This was an historiographical problem. In the case of Wikipedia, interpretation is not relevant, but information is. Since now people are using Wikipedia as a source to get started on understanding things, having the perspective and "voice" of 50% of the population missing is equivalent to what happened before. That is, it doesn't help provide a true or balanced account of things if all this is missing and when interpretation (which may initially be built on a Wikipedia search) does happen, the interpretation is actually skewed. A new historiographical problem.
- Valerie Aurora: Every person brings their own personal experience and knowledge to Wikipedia. What we know depends on who we are and the life we lead. Women have important and unique knowledge that is difficult to come by any other way. Losing the contributions of half the human race is against the fundamental principle of Wikipedia: free access to the sum of human knowledge.
Is anything missing from Wikipedia due to the lack of female participation? If so, what do you think is missing and how can that void be filled?
- Jgmikulay: Many women have collaborative leadership styles that would be beneficial to the encyclopedia. The combative culture that prevails currently is a huge turn-off.
- Whiteghost.ink: In my opinion, every organisation needs both sexes working together—the one balances out the other. All men together get terribly competitive and task focused and are highly likely to miss things in the rush to succeed. All women together are highly likely to start criticising each other and miss opportunities to succeed. These are generalisations, I know, but we need each other. And, even more difficult, we need to respect each others' approaches.
- Valerie Aurora: The depth (or existence of) coverage of topics on Wikipedia is highly skewed by its contributor base in two ways. First, a contributor has to be interested enough in a topic to write an article about it, without being so interested in the topic as to have a conflict of interest. Second, if someone else notices an article they don't like, they can make a request for deletion, which is then voted on. Right now on English Wikipedia, about 90% of the people writing and voting on articles are men. This is how you end up with the absurdity of arguing whether a woman scientist is notable enough to deserve a Wikipedia article at the same time that women starring in pornography [who win a pornographic award] are automatically considered notable.
What type of subject matter would you like to see covered better on Wikipedia in relation to women's history?
- Jgmikulay: Biographical articles on women in the art world, including artists, designers, curators, art historians and art administrators.
- Whiteghost.ink: We need integrated women's perspectives in ordinary articles, just like we need integrated global perspectives. This is harder than including global perspectives because often an article will separate out different national perspectives in a list—for example, the use of a food type in different countries. We do not want that in articles vis-à-vis men's and women's perspectives. For example, on the whole, we don't want the article to say "men think this" and "women think that". My point is that integration is harder than lists like this and requires nuanced writing.
- Valerie Aurora: Biographies of women, past and present, in any area. A recent study showed that while Wikipedia had more biographies of women overall, it was more likely to lack biographies of notable women than notable men. One of the ways to justify prejudice against women is to say, "There are no women X," where X is mathematicians, musicians, explorers, authors, etc. In reality, often many women have struggled through the barriers set up to prevent them from achieving their dreams, only to be forgotten, ignored, and dismissed. Write a biography of a woman today!
Will you be doing anything special related to women's history month and Wikipedia?
- Jgmikulay: I'll be introducing about 25 women students at Alverno College to editing the encyclopedia.
- Kippelboy: Yes, we are organizing an Edit-a-thon on March 24 at Figueres for improving the article of Àngels Santos Torroella. She is a 100 year old living surrealist painter badly represented in Spanish, Catalan and English Wikipedias.
- Whiteghost.ink: There are various things connecting GLAM and Women's History Month that are "on the go" here down under.
- Valerie Aurora: I'll be going to a local WikiWomen's History Month event in San Francisco at the Wikimedia Foundation and writing or updating women's biographies.
I believe these responses provide unique insight into the need for better women's coverage and women's participation in Wikipedia. I hope through this brief sharing of thoughts, you will have gained a deeper understanding of where women's history lies in Wikipedia, and the need for improvement about all areas related to women's history.
Want to be involved in WikiWomen's History Month? Learn more about an event in your city, or an online event through WikiProjects at the WikiWomen's History Month page. And be bold—think of the representation in the subjects that you contribute to on Wikipedia and related projects: how can you make Wikipedia a place to celebrate your heritage, the heritage of the women in your lives, and the heritage of all the world's knowledge.
- Do you have an issue you think the community should be informed about but isn't? Pitch your proposals for features to The Signpost's editors in the newsroom.
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