Unraveling Wikipedia’s Mystery over Women’s History

Women participate in a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. Photo Credit: Women’s Media Center

Systemic Sexism vs. Social Norms

Picture this: You’re a distinguished member of academia who just won a coveted Nobel Prize in science. Yet Wikipedia previously rejected you for a biographical page.

This happened to Donna Strickland, a distinguished professor. She was only approved for an English Wikipedia page after winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018. Yet her example is all too common.

On the surface, Strickland’s situation appears emblematic of intentional sex discrimination by Wikipedia. But those who work on Wikipedia attest that it’s merely reflective of history in general and social norms in particular.

So who’s right?

The data is daunting…To wit:

  • Less than 18% of 1.6 million English Wikipedia bios are about women, up from 15% in 2014, according to Wikidata Human Gender Indicators (WHGI)
  • Put another way: of about 1,615,000 bio pages, fewer than 300,000 relate to women.
  • Moreover, men account for about 90% of all Wikipedia volunteer editors.

This may sound like blatant gender bias by Wikipedia. However, Wikipedians (volunteer editors) claim such an assumption is superficial. They assert that gender equality must be considered in the larger historical context of sexism as a microcosm of society (which, in turn, is reflected on Wikipedia through no fault of its own).

Here’s what we know for certain:

  • Women number almost half the planet’s population.
  • Women are half the population of the United States.
  • Women comprise half of America’s labor force.
  • Women earn more college degrees than men in the USA.

Again, this begs the obvious question:

Why is there such a scarcity of women on Wikipedia’s English language pages and among its staff of volunteer editors?

Theories abound.

A team of computer science researchers at the University of Minnesota examined this question back in 2011, per the video below. Many follow-up studies have confirmed similar or worse results showing Wikipedia’s dismal record regarding women’s pages and staff.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia, is transparent about the problem (to its credit):

  • “Gender bias on Wikipedia reflects the fact that a dominant majority of volunteer Wikipedia editors, particularly on the English-language site, are male.”
  • “This has led to Wikipedia having fewer and less extensive articles about women or topics important to women.”
  • “It figures among the most frequent criticisms of Wikipedia, and part of a more general criticism about systemic bias in Wikipedia.”

The aforementioned statements by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation are interesting when juxtaposed with the organization’s lofty mission: “Collecting and sharing knowledge that fully represents human diversity” to create “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

How can humanity “share in the sum of all knowledge” if a major segment of the population — women — is visibly underrepresented on Wikipedia?
Is the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission a misnomer?
Image Credit: “Wikimedia Community Engagement Insights Survey 2018, Edward Galvez et al”

Male Dominated

Sex bias on Wikipedia is alarming for many reasons, both in terms of a male dominated work environment and a lack of information about women’s history and related topics.

One problem is the online encyclopedia’s monopoly of influence on Google’s search engine. The vast majority of internet searches worldwide are conducted on Google.

This equates with Wikipedia having an airtight lock on Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Wiki pages receive prominent placement in Google search results. SEO is one significant social media metric for companies and marketers. SEO impacts sales and revenue for big brands online and off.

Susan Dolan is a UK-based SEO expert who specializes in Google search results. She told me the following:

  • “Due to the fact that the majority of information is male in the first place — and Google is trying to make sense of the [real] world — the result will be the same…male.”
  • “In the real world there is inequality, therefore Google will display this quite naturally,” said Dolan.
  • “Wikipedia does well through the algorithm, which is high in content. Again, it is male so the search result will return the same.”
“We must not only catch up with ‘HERstory’ but we also need a 50:50 male-female ratio of editors so history doesn’t continue repeating itself.” — Susan Dolan

Beyond business, gender discrimination on Wikipedia is troubling for women’s rights generally, not to mention for anyone who values equality and diversity as social priorities.

Sexism on English Wikipedia paints a tainted picture of women’s historical accomplishments, societal contributions and workforce representation in America.

But is this picture based on willfully malicious gender discrimination by Wikipedia or more symbolic of history and society?

Wikipedia is one of the top destinations on the internet, with countless tens of millions of weekly and monthly visitors. Wikipedia is also a leading source of trusted and cited online information — an important digital currency in a world where “fake news” is ingrained in popular culture.

Is Wikipedia mired in the Middle Ages or part of the 21st-century Information Age? The jury is still out.

Women in Red

International Women’s Day was March 8.

Women’s History Month ended on March 31.

Equal Pay Day was observed on April 2 (USA).

Conventional wisdom points to Wikipedia’s continued marginalization of women, whether unintentionally or by design.

Is Wikipedia a relic of 1920s paternalism even as it flourishes in 2019?

There seems to be universal agreement that fostering gender equality on Wikipedia has been too slow. Nevertheless, some incremental progress is being made, thanks in large part to the Women in Red project.

According to Wikipedia, Women in Red (WiR) is a: “WikiProject within that site, focusing effort to create articles about notable women that do not currently exist there. The potential for such missing articles can be determined by looking for red hyperlinks in existing Wikipedia articles or templates.”

I recently spoke with Roger Bamkin of Wikimedia UK. He’s a veteran Wikipedia administrator based in Scotland who helped conceptualize WiR.

Pictured Above: Roger Bamkin. Photo Credit: John Lubbock

Bamkin shared his take with me on the controversy surrounding women and Wikipedia. He pointed out the following:

  • “It’s a popular narrative to assume that systemic sex bias is caused by the majority of men who are editors and not by the majority of men in history.”
  • “There’s no doubt gender bias exists on Wikipedia, but let’s not forget that the systemic bias existed before the internet and Wikipedia was invented.”
  • “Increasing the diversity of editors on Wikipedia is a good thing, but it’s naive to think that increasing the number of women editors is the magic bullet.”
  • “The Library of Congress contains a lot of sources with a lot of knowledge and a lot of bias. Wikipedia is using those sources. But anyone is allowed to fix it on Wikipedia — and we are.”
“Tackling systemic bias is something that we should all get involved in; this is not a ‘woman’ issue but an ‘equality’ issue.” — Roger Bamkin

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight is the other co-founder who runs WiR. She was interviewed in March by Stephen Harrison for Medium’s new publication OneZero (article below).

  • “To our surprise, the idea really took off, and people began writing more articles about women. We use a bot to collect and post our metrics.”
  • “Five years ago, only about 15 percent of the English-language Wikipedia biographies were about women. Now the number is closer to 17.74 percent. And the project is now active in 13 different language versions, not just English.”
While Women in Red deserves accolades, questions linger about whether progress is being made quickly enough?

Edit-a-thons

Have you heard of a Wiki edit-a-thon?

An “edit-a-thon” is a gathering of people to draft and submit more bios featuring women’s history and accomplishments. A key element is turning red page links to blue.

The red links on current pages signify the need for more content about, or related to, women. The red links turn blue becoming active hyperlinks when the draft content is approved by Wikipedia editors.

The Wikimedia Foundation says, “Edit-a-thons have been held to encourage female editors and increase the coverage of women’s topics.”

Wikimedia’s Roger Bamkin points out: “We have partnered with the BBC, the UN and several universities. The University of Edinburgh, for example, has an in person edit-a-thon every month,” along with other colleges on both sides of the Atlantic (as the article below by Adora Svitak exemplifies).

Carol Ann Whitehead is an equality and diversity advocate in the UK who has helped organize and participate in a global Wiki edit-a-thon. Here’s why:

  • “We decided to build on the ad hoc editing events to create a one-day global edit-a-thon to encourage women to nominate women for new Wikipedia pages, in addition to creating, editing or updating pages to make a difference for gender equality,” Whitehead told me.
“The obvious objective is to improve diversity on Wikipedia.”
  • “It’s a long-term project to ensure key women from different cultures, religions and races are recognized on Wikipedia pages and become editors.”
  • “This will assure that Wikipedia gatekeepers are not rejecting amazing women all over the world across all sectors,” she said.
Should Wikipedia implement a broader and bolder strategy to better balance the quantity of gender-based pages and the composition of female editors with that of men?

Notability Test

Another key variable of the gender equity debate revolves around Wikipedia’s important “Notability” policy.

This guideline is the framework by which editors determine what content is accepted or rejected. However, the policy appears to have a disparate impact on submissions by and about women.

Wikipedia says, “Notability is a test used by editors to decide whether a given topic warrants its own article.”

But the online magazine Slate describes the policy as a “Wikipedia rule that makes it harder to create entries about lesser-known but important women from history.” (article below)

Slate recently published its own article headlined “The Notability Blues” to show how Wikipedia submissions by or about women are haphazardly rejected at a high rate.

  • “Modifying the language of Wikipedia’s notability guideline would require a formal request for comment and a high degree of consensus from the Wikipedia editing community in support of the proposal…an unlikely outcome,” Slate concludes.
How noble is Wikipedia’s notability standard?

Women in Red co-founder Bamkin explained it to me this way:

  • “Notability guidelines contain systemic bias because the bias is part of the system. It takes time to realize how we are all subject to systemic bias.”
  • “However, this doesn’t stop us from creating thousands of more articles. Our project has hundreds of lists of women who need articles.”
  • “Sadly, we would need to find a million new articles about women to gain parity…Good ideas and assistance are always welcome.”
Some of Wikipedia’s critics claim the notability standard is just more biased bureaucracy by a cadre of male dominated editors.

Deborah Levine is a USA-based cultural diversity expert, award-winning author and editor-in-chief of American Diversity Report.

  • “Along with Wikipedia’s growing popularity and high visibility, there should be increased public scrutiny of its male-dominated staff, ” Levine told me.
  • “Wikipedia combines the lack of diversity endemic to both the technical and journalism worlds, particularly in decision-making positions,” added Levine.
“With few women in the upper levels of management in these key professions, it’s no wonder that women are only faintly visible on Wikipedia.” — Deborah J. Levine
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Washington, D.C.

My Take

The Wikimedia Foundation says it deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding women and diversity. They say Wikipedia’s intentions are indeed noble. They claim the gender gap for women is not their fault.

Others contend Wikipedia’s current editorial paradigm is clearly a ‘mission fail’ in terms of promoting gender equality, as shown by Wiki data and anecdotal evidence.

Critics assert a comprehensive technical overall of Wikipedia’s notability guideline is needed.
  • Why can’t the notability process be revisited and/or revised to be more gender neutral?
  • Why can’t inherent biases within Wikipedia’s structural organization be remedied in a more effective, efficient and expeditious way?
Is it enough for Wikipedia to blame history and society at large for systemic sex bias, while making slow progress to narrow its own gender gap?

Albert Einstein reminded us: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Does Einstein’s logic apply to Wikipedia’s editorial operations?

Hopefully, all sides can agree that digital diversity on Wikipedia should include a representative balance of people from all walks of life — regardless of gender, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, genetic information or other possible discriminatory factors.

Anything less would be digital delinquency.

Do YOU agree?

DBG

Note: Similar versions of this article were also published in ThriveGlobal.com and American Diversity Report.

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The author is a freelance writer and former spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He’s also a contributor and advisory board member to American Diversity Report.