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Why we need to keep talking about Wikipedia's gender gap

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By Jesswade88
We invited the Op-Ed presented here from Jess Wade (Jesswade88), a working physicist, award-winning "ambassador for STEM" and one of Nature's 10 people who mattered in 2018. You can read more about the incident described below at this month's In the media report. – Ed.

The weekend after Thanksgiving (November 30, 2019) I headed over to my Wikipedia Watchlist, excited to check out my unread notifications. I've been editing Wikipedia for almost two years, creating articles everyday about women scientists and engineers. Usually my notifications are to alert me about the latest activity over on WikiProject Women in Red, or to let me know a page has been nominated for Did You Know, or to make suggestions about people who need biographies. But this time the notification was different – an anonymous editor, using only their IP address, had tagged 50 of my recent articles as not meeting Wikipedia's notability guidelines. The user had, at a rate exceeding 1 biography per minute, deemed this group of professors, award-winning journalists, best-selling authors and well-respected policy makers as not notable.

The notability criteria for academics to be worthy of a Wikipedia page are pretty self-explanatory – and if you've written a biography before, they won't be new to you. Researchers who have had a big impact on their academic discipline, hold a prestigious academic award, are an elected Fellow of a prestigious learned society, hold a named chair, serve as Editor-In-Chief of an important journal or have contributed to the world in their academic capacity are all deemed worthy of a spot on the site. Of course; thanks to academia's own built-in bias (white Western men are more likely to be interviewed and quoted by the press, more frequently cited in academic literature and more often awarded important fellowships or prizes), these notability criteria contribute to Wikipedia's gender gap. But even when women fulfil them, it's hard to substantiate with independent reliable sources – often the only place that writes about them is their employer. When Professor Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize she didn't have a Wikipedia page – not because she hadn't been notable before winning, but because the only place that wrote about her being President of the Optical Society of America was the Optical Society of America, and that was deemed as not an impartial enough reference to prove she had held this position.

I made the mistake of tweeting a screenshot of the tagged pages, and for a week or so, Twitter was a frenzy of animated discussion, spurred by Wikipedia's apparent sexism. Whilst several misinterpreted the problem (after all, we all know that Wikipedia content is created and deleted by a network of volunteers, and that other than training and supporting new editors, the Wikimedia Foundation are not involved), plenty replied to say this was why they had given up. To the untrained editor, interactions like the ones I found in my notifications the weekend after Thanksgiving can sting. To beginners from underrepresented groups, the encyclopaedia can feel less like a team effort and more like an elitist members club, where those with experience throw their weight around – their opinions and power dictating what stays online and what doesn't.

We should all be doing more to tackle Wikipedia's gender and knowledge gaps. We should all be more active in editing, training and supporting new editors. We should all be encouraging journalists to cover more stories from and about those from minority groups, helping awarding bodies to recognise the outstanding work of scientists and engineers who are traditionally underrepresented and unearthing the stories of those who are all too often overlooked. We should all make more effort to edit and improve articles rather than deem them not notable. Wikipedia's a gift to the world – the whole world – and the information on here should reflect the diverse communities who benefit from it.

In this issue
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Thanks for writing this @Jesswade88:! I know that many Wikipedians feel it an honor to have you writing on Wikipedia. It is certainly an honor for The Signpost to number you among our contributors. Smallbones(smalltalk) 15:24, 27 December 2019 (UTC) (Editor-in-chief)[reply]

I think such praise is a bit overblown and I regret Smallbones offering it on behalf of The Signpost; I assure you that there was no team vote on this matter. The fact is, Wikipedia editors just want affirmation for their preferred text. In this oped, Jess plays the feminist martyr upset that she has received blowback rather than plaudits. Hers is the popular narrative in SanFran to which only hate-filled people object. She tells us that there are others online that also yearn for un-earned adulation for spouting their political beliefs, too. Shame on Wikipedia for being an unfair game. Our rules-based volunteer community should support the creation of articles meeting WP:N and should punish vindictive, bad-faith tagging. As for me, I hear the message of the "hasten-the-day" crowd and wonder if we all just stopped giving the WMF a perverse incentive by writing for our own selfish needs perhaps more equity might be found on this website. Chris Troutman (talk) 15:43, 27 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks for the link to the fandom paper. So, it turns out that what our editors know, write and care about are pretty much the same topics. Yes, some old-time editors are railfans or lovers of warships, so our articles on locomotives and submarines are carefully fussed over by several editors and tend to be excellent. And newbies often follow the dictum that petty minds discuss people, mediocre minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas, or for whatever other reason concentrate on biographies of the living. Some of the resulting articles are poorly written, little tended, and seldom viewed. Me, I agree with Dr Laurel Weaver; I hate the living; in my case it's because so many of them earnestly desire recognition through Wikibiography. Because I'm an elderly fanboy for infrastructure, bicycling, astronomy and diplomacy, those articles tend to have shorter sentences than when I found them. Should we stop writing about what we know and either love or hate? No, though of course we should be wary of oozing WP:POV. — Preceding unsigned comment added by Jim.henderson (talkcontribs)

Thank you Jesswade88 for your efforts to amplify the voices of marginalized people on Wikipedia. Funcrunch (talk) 19:59, 27 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]

I have one observation. There are presently, & as far as I can tell will always be, a number of trolls, cranks & boneheads contributing to Wikipedia, & one can't really consider oneself an experienced Wikipedian until one has encountered at least one of these. These are the people who make the edits that Jesswade88 mentions here. They are endemic here on Wikipedia because they are endemic in the wider world, & I don't know of any simple & reliable way to filter them out. (Except being confident that, based on their track record, any solution the Foundation tries to implement is more likely to reduce the total number of active editors than to reduce the number of trolls, cranks & boneheads who commit the acts we find unhelpful.) -- llywrch (talk) 20:41, 27 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]

We are always going to be vulnerable to newbie "mistakes", but I do wonder whether we make it too easy for people to tag articles for deletion. This problem would not have happened, or at least not on this scale, if an account had to acquire a track record of accurate deletion tagging before being able to quickly tag 50 articles for deletion. ϢereSpielChequers 21:25, 27 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
@WereSpielChequers, re: deletion tagging restrictions, if the talk page account is right, the 49 articles were tagged for notability (not deletion), reported as disruptive, and remediated within two hours. For reference, the media appearances were a week later: Dec 5 (BBC program) and Dec 7 (Telegraph article). czar 23:09, 27 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
That. And the tagger was blocked 5 min after report. Gråbergs Gråa Sång (talk) 08:12, 28 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
WereSpielChequers, side-stepping what Czar has written -- which is very much on point -- I've found that the process for tagging articles for deletion anything but trivial: I can spend 15-20 minutes writing up an article for deletion. (But since at heart I'm an Inclusionist, perhaps I take much more time & effort to make a solid argument for any deletion I propose.) In any case, no one can write up 50 serious nominations for deletion in an hour. Maybe 50 serious CSDs, but even in that situation I'd consider it a special case & requiring justification. Or a reason for a ban on several grounds. -- llywrch (talk) 01:03, 28 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
I don't dispute that correct tagging, either for notability or deletion, is complex and usually time consuming. The problem in my view is that is far too easy for people to do this sort of thing incorrectly and at speed. ϢereSpielChequers 09:55, 29 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
And has anyone bothered to enter a bug report over the fact that one can blank an entire page with a single edit? (No, let's not report that as a bug. The Foundation will come up with a solution that will prove worse than the problem. And devote an embarrassingly outlandish amount of resources to arrive at that solution.) -- llywrch (talk) 10:11, 30 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]

While I don't care too much about 'minority representation' issues, it is pretty unfortunate that such an important person was almost completely ignored.

Out of curiosity though, the Nobel prize woman, what were her credentials and other accomplishments compared to previous laureates? TerribleTy2727 (talk) 03:10, 13 January 2020 (UTC)[reply]


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