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Wikimedians get serious about women in science

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By Tony1, Phoebe, and Jan eissfeldt
The distinguished engineer, mathematician, and inventor Hertha Marks Ayrton, denied a degree by Cambridge in 1880 as a woman, and entry as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902 as a married woman. Her article was among those improved during the celebration at the Royal Society 110 years later.
Panellists at the evening discussion
WMUK event co-organiser Daria Cybulska with David Attwell at the Ada Lovelace editathon event
Co-organiser Andrew Gray working with Nathalie Pettorelli at the editathon
Katie Chan watches as Uta Frith edits the article on Mary Buckland, who had previously rated only a mention in her husband's Wikipedia article, even though they had worked as a team on fossil discovery in the early 19th century.

It is well known that women are underrepresented in the sciences, and that high-achieving female scientists have often been excluded from authorship lists and passed over for awards and honours solely on the basis of gender. Also significant has been the underplaying in the academic literature, news reporting, and online, of women's current and historical contributions to science.

Last week saw members of the Wikimedia movement collaborate with other institutions to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2012 in at least six countries. Ada Lovelace was a 19th-century English mathematical engineer who worked with Charles Babbage on what many people consider to be the scientific precursor of the computer. The most high-profile event was organised by Daria Cybulska, Wikimedia UK's Events Organiser, and Andrew Gray, Wikipedian in Residence at the British Library: an afternoon editathon at the library of the prestigious Royal Society in London, which has a rich collection of sources in the history of science and biographies of scientists. The editathon was followed by an evening panel discussion chaired by Professor Uta Frith, the eminent researcher on autism and dyslexia, and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The London event received significant press coverage, including articles in Scientific American ("Royal Society runs science women wiki marathon "), the Independent ("Wikipedia gets overdue makeover to give recognition to science's female pioneers"), the Telegraph ("Shining a light on our science heroines"), the Guardian ("Wikipedia edit-a-thon brings women scientists out of the shadows"; "Why women fade into the background on Wikipedia"), the Huffington Post ("Wikipedia pushes to cover more women, attract female editors"; "Wikipedia edit-a-thon at Royal Society aims to fill in gaps of women in science"), Wired UK (Science Royal Society edit-a-thon to improve Wikipedia articles about women in science"), BBC Online, and an interview with editathon participant Dr Nathalie Pettorelli on BBC national radio's Today programme. The Guardian also ran a companion story on Wikipedia's gender gap.

The event was highlighted by the Royal Society itself on their website and librarian's newsletter; in honour of the occasion, the Royal Society made a few selected biographies of women scientists from the closed-access Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society freely available for the week.

The editathon had a structured half-hour at the beginning – a short introduction from Felicity Henderson (the Royal Society), Daria (for the UK chapter), and Suw Charman-Anderson (for Ada Lovelace Day). Andrew Gray then gave a short practical tutorial in editing Wikipedia, and people got to work on the topics they'd selected, helped by editors Katie Chan and Tom Morris).

Andrew told the Signpost that "the editathon went really well", with at least 15 articles created at the physical event in London, and many more by people joining the editathon remotely. The editathon was fully subscribed days before, given the limitations of the room – an enthusiasm that was reflected in numerous favourable comments on Twitter. Andrew said, "A couple of people brought their own sources (or worked from online sources) but we made good use of the RS library. Most attendees were new, but specialists in the field: we had several people there from a history-of-science background; they'd looked at the people they wanted to work on beforehand and could easily put their work into context and indicate its significance."

On the same day, Indian editors contributed online to the London editathon, organised by Netha Hussain and coordinated with Daria. Netha is a medical student who works on both English and Malayalam Wikipedias; in parallel with the UK organisers, she identified articles for creation and expansion, and created a separate section for India in the event page. She told us, "Six new articles about Indian women scientists were created and one article was copy-edited and expanded. A new category for Indian women scientists was created. Indian editors were joined by administrators and bot owners on the English Wikipedia in adding images, copy-editing, and placing interwiki links. A related editathon was conducted over three days on the Malayalam Wikipedia, during which nine new articles about women scientists were created."

Back in London, the evening panel discussion was attended by some 70 people and was moderated by Uta Frith. Daria gave a recap of the Wikipedia angle, Suw Charman-Anderson spoke about Ada Lovelace Day, and Richard Holmes gave a short talk about the history of women in science. The themes of the discussion included why some fields are more female than others; how much of the under-representation of women is traceable to problems in education and the gender conditioning of boys and girls; and the ways in which science sometimes does not work well for women in academic environments.

On Ada Lovelace Day itself – the Tuesday three days before – editathons had already been held in Boston and Stockholm, and there had been a celebration in the WMF's offices in San Francisco. The WMF event was organised by Valerie Aurora, director of the Ada Initiative, who gave a talk about Ada Lovelace, the significance of the day of celebration, and the Ada Initiative.

Andrew Gray told the Signpost, "I think we'd really like to hold a similar event next year – there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for it. I think it would work very well as an international or multilingual event. As well as the Indian participation, the event prompted the translation into Arabic of a set of articles on women in computing, and a number of articles were created in Russian."

This was echoed by Katie Chan: "The goals of these events were to increase the numbers of women taking up science and technology and editing Wikipedia, and to improve our coverage of related topics. Similar events will no doubt be organised by Wikimedia UK, and elsewhere by other chapters and the foundation."

Daria commented: "As much as the thematic focus of the event was to create articles about women in science, we succeeded in gathering a room full of women really enthusiastic about learning to contribute to Wikipedia. I hope they will continue editing in the future."

One remaining women-in-science event will be held in Oxford on 26 October, organised by a group at that university.

Brief notes

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