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Women and Wikipedia

Women's history, what we're missing, and why it matters

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By Sarah Stierch

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.

We can make Wikipedia a greater resource for women's history.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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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Editors may be interested in the 94 missing articles I have listed at Wikipedia:WikiProject Missing encyclopedia articles/NWHP (National Women's History Project) and the six remaining red-links at National Women's Hall of Fame, although both pages are wholly American centred. Rich Farmbrough, 20:06, 15 March 2012 (UTC).[reply]

It's ridiculous to suggest that recruiting women editors will redress imbalances and that we'll suddenly have greater coverage on biographies of women and other 'female-orientated' issues. I've said it before: it's sexist and demeaning to both genders to a) think that women editors ought to be writing about females and/or birth control and/or friendship bracelets and b) that men don't, or can't be encouraged to, write about females and birth control also. I hate the fact that this narrow-minded and segregational viewpoint is alive on a supposedly mature and intellectual encyclopaedia, and that it parades under an "equality" banner. Please! Julia\talk 07:48, 23 March 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Hi Julia! I'm just curious where, in the roundtable, folks suggest that women need to be writing "female-oriented" issues? WikiWomen's History Month actually hopes that anyone, of any gender, will write about women's history. Just curious where your opinion stemmed from! (And for the record: I do write about women's historical figures most of the time, but, perhaps I'm just a rare case!) To be accused of being sexist and demeaning is a painful thing for anyone to hear, and to know that myself, and these four advocates for the improvement of women's history and women's participation in Wikipedia are being called that, is even more hard to take! So I'd love to learn more about what in this article triggered your frustration. I might not be able to address it, but, knowing more about it would be great. Sarah (talk) 13:25, 23 March 2012 (UTC)[reply]
It wasn't in this roundtable necessarily which suggested women ought to be writing about female-orientated topics, but it's been brought up synonymously with the issue of women on Wikipedia many times before. Specifically I was referring to an article mentioned in the Signpost last year, and my response to it: ([1]). Julia\talk 20:07, 24 March 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Oh! And for the record again: I do believe that it's important that women interested in subjects like birth control, menstruation, brassiere, etc - things that many of us have personal experience with - write about them. I do think that in subject areas, like most in Wikipedia, that are written by men, it can be a powerful tool to have an even more neutral article. Perhaps a woman interested in the history of fashion or biology might add other things to an article than a man might. But, I don't think there is any research to prove that, it's just a theory I find interesting =) Sarah (talk) 13:30, 23 March 2012 (UTC)[reply]
"It's ridiculous to suggest that recruiting women editors will redress imbalances". Actually it's not ridiculous. As an example, an academic study recently showed that movies that were preferred by women had less coverage on Wikipedia. More women on Wikipedia = more content from a female perspective. Of course that isn't limited to fashion and female biographies. Lots of women on Wikipedia write about sports and science fiction, and lots of guys (like me) write about feminism and menstruation. But either way, its good to get a diversity of voices contributing to the project. Kaldari (talk) 14:21, 23 March 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Without getting into whether Julia's take on what the Sinpost was saying is spot-on or not, her general observation certainly is. It doesn't take a female editor to make good edits to women's biography articles here, nor should women editors be focusing on "womanly" topics instead of what happens to interest them and what they're most competent to write about. I'm male and feel no partiuclar urge or pressure to write about fatherhood, football and prostate glands. A problem that has been very under-discussed, however, is that women themselves buy into that sort of assumption too often, sometimes to an extreme that produces encyclopedically unhelpful results and doesn't actually do anything to improve the real female influence on and coverage in Wikipedia. It's quite unhelpful, in multiple ways, to create stubs and ill-populated categories that will almost certainly never expand, just to rather robotically include women as a special subcategorization. We do not need an article like Women's hang gliding in Canada or a Category:Women watercolorists, absent compelling reasons under WP:SUMMARY and WP:CATGRS, respectively, to sex-fork this way. [Those are stand-ins for real examples that are just as odd; I don't want to re-start debates about the real ones here.] That women might have some occupation or skill that didn't have something to do with children, sewing and kitchens [I'm writing this with dismissive sarcasm about sexist attitudes, mind you] hasn't been seen as noteworthy for several generations now, at least not in the West. There is no "gee-whiz" factor in the idea of female doctors and politicians and programmers and whatever. When a field has historically traditionally been completely and rather programmatically dominated by one sex or the other, such forks may make sense (at least while the novelty factor still exists for some non-trivial percentage of readers who may seek information on the topic as a topic in and of itself), as perhaps at Men in nursing and Category:Women's ice hockey players. But excessive pursuit of splitting every category and article topic on sex-based lines is quixotic at best, and can be "ghettoizing" (CATGRS goes into this). It's far more important to properly develop and balance exiting articles and categories to have less one-sided coverage, write important missing articles, and overall make WP less of a "sausage party" of nerd-boys, than it is to topically nit-pick for political point-making. I usually get called a sexist for daring to bring this up without having the right "junk" to have a valid opinion on anything to do with women, but my skin is thick and I don't give up just because some people find it easier to get reflexively angry than to examine their own editing priorities critically. — SMcCandlish   Talk⇒ ɖ∘¿¤þ   Contrib. 06:41, 24 March 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Interesting post. I also believe it's unhelpful to race-fork, as in List of African-American astronauts. But I suspect this belief is politically incorrect, so I will remain an anonymous coward. (talk) 07:52, 30 July 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I'm cringing while reading how strongly and polemically I worded my post. Evidently I woke up on the wrong side of the bed; it was early, and just before catching another student-crowded bus into work, and knew I'd probably be elbowed in the face again. I'm sorry! The issue of 'women and Wikipedia' does tend to rile me though. First, I can't help but feel that blame is being apportioned to men, as it is with many traditionally 'feminist' issues. There seems to be a tendency to think that men are somehow responsible for there being a low number of females on Wikipedia; leaving aside historical cultural points about why this might be so, I think the major reason is that most women just aren't interested, or interested enough to stick with it. Second, as I've commented before ([2]), this undervalues the women who are already on Wikipedia and not writing about traditionally female topics. It's like pushing me, and many others, into the male demographic, because we're not serving the feminist cause, as if women's value on Wikipedia could be measured by topic coverage. It only strengthens the stereotyping that women like me have been struggling with. The very fact that the gender gap 'issue' has brewed speeches and roundtables and journalism shouts that women need propped up and supported in something as simple as Wikipedia: not a good way to challenge the "weaker sex" notion, right? I know that if I were not already an editor when the drive to get women on WP came out, it would certainly have put me off becoming one. I wouldn't have wanted to insert myself somewhere as one of the prized, rescued, recruited few, amongst males who may now feel undervalued and resentful because the focus is on how, through no fault of their own, the encyclopaedia isn't 'good enough' because of their demographic, instead of focusing on their enormously worthy contributions that have built this encyclopaedia from the ground up. Third, we ought to be encouraging all diversity. We have a huge Western bias, which I see as far more of a concern, and more of a problem worth fixing, than pushing to have yet more small articles on, say, female authors of borderline notability, just to satisfy some perceived persecution. As unpopular as my opinion will be, I think women need to get over themselves and just get on with it. Reverse discrimination is never admirable, and no one respects it. By pushing this agenda we are creating a gender gap, and it's not about numbers this time. Julia\talk 20:07, 24 March 2012 (UTC)[reply]


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