Sexism is a hot topic on Wikipedia at the moment. The Countering systemic bias WikiProject uses Tom Simonite's "The Decline of Wikipedia" to highlight "... the effect of systemic bias and policy creep on recent downward trends in the number of editors available to support Wikipedia's range and coverage of topics." It cites the New York Times to say that "Wikipedia has been criticized by some journalists and academics for lacking not only women contributors but also extensive and in-depth encyclopedic attention to many topics regarding gender."
A Wikimedia Foundation study found that fewer than 13% of contributors to Wikipedia are women. Former WMF Executive Director Sue Gardner said increasing diversity was about making the encyclopaedia "as good as it could be." Possible factors cited as discouraging women included the "obsessive fact-loving realm" and the necessity to be "open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists." In August 2014, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales announced in a BBC interview the Wikimedia Foundation's plans for "doubling down" on gender bias at Wikipedia.
Grammatical gender has not been a feature of English since the 12th century. The use of the feminine pronoun "she" to refer to countries survived in some writing until the early 20th century, but is almost unknown nowadays. Wikipedia, as a modern encyclopedia, follows this trend: we do not talk about France or the United States as "she", except occasionally in quotations.
In Wikipedia's articles, the use of "she" to describe naval ships is near-universal, despite a successful and ongoing effort to improve the quality of these articles by the Military History and Ship WikiProjects. The consensus is that the first major editor of an article gets to decide for all time whether an article uses "she" or "it". It's obvious from the preponderance of "she" in the articles that almost all of them have been written by those with a preference for "she", which under our current rules is fine. This leaves naval articles as the last bastion of grammatical gender on Wikipedia.
As a man with a fascination for machines, including war machines, I've always had a particular horror of men who describe their cars, motorbikes, or aeroplanes as "she". Without getting too psychoanalytical, this seems to be evidence of ingrained and systematic sexism. The AP style guide and the Lloyd's Register discourage "she" for ships, and the Chicago Manual of Style has stated since 2003: "When a pronoun is used to refer to a vessel, the neuter it or its (rather than she or her) is preferred". Some of my older naval books still use "she", but the modern academic standard in all serious works is to omit it as an archaic usage.
The reasons some men give for hanging on to this terminology for ships are fascinating: "It takes a lot of work and tender loving care, as well as a lot of paint to make a ship look good" and "Some have a cute fantail, others are heavy in the stern, but all have double-bottoms which demand attention," are two of my favourites. Our Wikipedian usage still reflects the sentiment of "... it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable."
While these justifications are no doubt given tongue-in-cheek, in my value-system the casual sexism is obvious. Aesthetically this jars, and in terms of the embedded values of language, the use of a feminine pronoun to describe a killing machine crewed mainly by men jars too.
The place of women in Western society has undergone a huge change in the past 100 years. Women were allowed to vote in elections after much controversy in most countries after World War I, with Switzerland holding out until 1971. In the United States Navy, women have been recruited since 1917. In the 1940s, a special auxiliary service for women, WAVES, was set up. Women were expected to be non-combatants. By the 1970s, women were eligible for most surface combat roles and the first female naval aviators qualified. American submarines opened their hatches to women only in the last few years. In Britain, the Royal Navy first allowed women to go to sea in 1990 and it was 2014 before the first female submariners were admitted.
Perhaps as women penetrate this male preserve, this last remnant of grammatical gender could be allowed to wither from our project. Wikipedia generally has a proud tradition of being conservative in what we include in articles, but we claim to have a progressive attitude towards addressing systemic bias in how we write. Spinal Tap depicts a male rock star unable to understand criticism of the band's new album cover as being "sexist"; he asks "What's wrong with being sexy?" That was a 1984 satire on the problem of ingrained sexism; are male editors of ship-related articles in 2014 unconsciously perpetuating the same misogyny satirised in the film?
If Lila Tretikov and Jimmy Wales (not to mention the millions of volunteers who write our articles) are serious about helping us create a female-friendly editing environment, reforming the pronoun we use for naval ships might be an obvious place to start.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds at our opinion desk or through email.