Wikipedia Has a Women Problem

And There is Both Bad News And Good News About Why And How to Fix

Shannon Edwards

Shannon Edwards

Founder, FromAtoSHE®

Wikipedia is the world’s largest online encyclopedia with 57 million entries and 1.8 billion users — but it lacks an equal proportion of biographies of notable women. Hovering at just 19 percent, there are about as many women profiled on Wikipedia as there are male soccer players with individual pages on the site.

And this is both a problem for those accessing the encyclopedia as a reference, as well as, for a world that will increasingly see this data hoovered up and served back as artificial intelligence (AI) applications. 

But as we are apt to do these days: rage on social media about both literal and perceived inequities… getting to the bottom of the problem doesn’t offer a convenient narrative or solution.

So as I went through my own cycle of incredulity, then curiosity; I reached out on Twitter looking for answers and found some wisdom in the end…

A Wikipedia Refresher

Wikipedia was created in early 2001 pretty much as you see it today. And it has grown steadily over over the intervening 20 years becoming a data-rich behemoth with no peer. There are a staggering fifty-seven million articles to be found in more than 300 languages edited by nearly 130K volunteers.

There is no boss, no hierarchy, no top-down decision making. Contributors are from all walks of life and simply believe in the project’s mission — giving of their time when they can. But, then again, this noble crew do not resemble their potential pool of subjects — as 80-70 percent are men.

It’s not easy to contribute an article or edit content on the cumbersome Wikipedia platform. But what may be most off-putting to, say, a female newcomer, are the tales of sexism and harassment we see reported in the press about the website.

Wikipedia editor Emily Temple-Wood started editing on the site when she was 12. Her efforts to focus on female scientists was often met with derision. But Emily said in a 2016 article that for every vile comment or note she received from angry Wikipedians, she would simply reciprocate by writing another biography of a woman scientist.

But, then, how many Emilys does it take to right the wrong of gender inequality?

Egalitarian But Unequal (And Often Inhospitable)

My experience with Wikipedia over the years has ranged from indifference to rage. Years ago, a biography was written about me as start-up CEO and often-profiled and quoted ‘online shopping expert.’ At the same time, a male start-up founder and colleague of mine had a biography written too. Mine was removed with some harsh commentary thrown in for good measure. His is still on the site. If you judge our articles based on impartial points of ‘attribution’ (e.g., article citations proving notability), I had dozens, he had one. 

Recently, I saw the same cycle occur when a friend was writing a biography of a woman-of-note and was getting constant resistance from Wikipedians. Again, if we use the number and quality of citation as a ‘notability indicator’, there didn’t appear to be a question of the woman’s appropriateness for inclusion. So what gives?

If You Don't Like It...Change It

After a Twitter punt for any thoughts on why gender inequality was rife on Wikipedia, I swiftly heard from a group called Women In Red  (a nod to the red links that denote a profile has yet to be created).

And with a reminder that inequality is something everyone should care about, I was introduced to a former engineer, teacher and grandfather, Roger Bamkin, who co-founded the Women In Red initiative in 2015.

Roger dissects the problem like an engineer. He sees it as a practical matter that requires getting more women on board to write and more profiles of women written. And he’s right.

He will tell you that he’s also okay with a bit of anger in the mix as there needs to be something stoking the fires of our collective motivation to fix the imbalance of Wikipedia content.

Misogyny and Misunderstanding

Is the problem on Wikipedia just sexism or, worse, misogyny? Yes, sometimes, but mainly not really.

With a universe of contributors that are primarily male, there has been both active resistance (as Emily experienced) as well as, more passive, systematic issues at the heart of the problem. 

This was laid bare a few years ago when Nobel prize-winner Donna Strikland failed to get a Wikipedia page prior to her Nobel win.

Professor of Biology, Dawn Bazely, wrote about the furor in the Washington Post in 2018. As someone very involved herself in Wikipedia, Dawn talked of headaches like ‘drive-by deletions’ which serve as a sort of trolling of female contributors. She lists a litany of other issues that result in gender injustices, such as Donna’s initial exclusion.

But Dawn gets at something that Roger talks about too and that is a systematic undervaluing of women’s contributions. Dawn notes: “Apparently, when a subject is not notable, notoriety can suffice — at least for men.” A few minutes perusing a handful of profiles of male soccer players on the platform and you understand her point.

But after years of teaching women to edit on the site, hosting edit-a-thons and speaking to the curious (and mad like me), Roger is more sanguine and feels confident that the balance is shifting.

A Mirror For Global Gender Inequality

And here is the crux of the ‘good news/bad news’ paradigm of Wikipedia: information on the site is created from secondary sources. It relies on solid, trustworthy primary information.

While it sometimes fails and is hard to police, a good Wikipedian looks for notability via substantial coverage in top-tier publications. And that is where the cracks in the system start to show. Roger walked me through a few areas that demonstrate a larger more systematic problem…

Historic perspective

Only a small percentage of our pre-web encyclopedic content was of women. We often forget how buried women’s contributions were in history. They were often collaborators and behind-the-scenes support in the service of ‘great’ men. In fact, you’ll find nothing at all written, says Roger, prior to 1820. So the process of discovering and documenting women in fields such as science and math has been historically hard-wired for exclusion.

Primary source accountibility

If you heard there was an issue with Wikipedia and women — you probably read an article about it, right? Well, the irony in this is that newspapers are the rich primary source material that make attribution on Wikipedia easy. So the very media decrying the lack of women on Wikipedia often don’t look at their own unequal coverage. An ecosystem of paucity starts with the source material.

The patriarchy and academia

Another source of notability is, of course ,academic research papers. And there is no lack of discussion and reflection on why the numbers published by women are low. The Conversation has an excellent analysis of the challenges in academia. But nothing brought to life the disparity in research like the story of Dr. Katalin Karikó whose life’s work gave us the technology behind the Covid vaccine. It’s a story everyone needs to hear to understand the hurdles and persistence of women scientists. 

Lack of female self promotion

Overall I am a bit suspect of the ‘lean in’ movement. But, of course, a lack of self-promotion is absolutely part of the problem. “You wouldn’t believe how many men cite themselves” says Roger. And isn’t that the truth both literally and figuratively? If we don’t seek out opportunities to publish or receive PR there is no downstream coverage to ensure we make the Wikipedia cut. It’s deeply systematic and personal, but it’s an element downstream in the process that makes women swim upstream to catch up.

What Can You Do To Support Wiki Women in Red?

Anyone with interest and the time to get involved can help turn the tide at Wikipedia. For all of my personal frustration about the issue, I deeply appreciate that this is an area where right now anyone can login, create a profile and get started changing the Wiki world. It’s that easy.

Save those 280 characters wasted on Twitter and start making a measurable difference today. And if you are reading this on October 12 there is a 24-hour edit-a-thon to jump into and get started!

More info:

  • Check out the Women in Red project page for details on mission, progress-to-date, etc. 
  • Navigate to the ‘Red Link List’ for a number of profiles that need to be tackled pronto
  • Participate in ‘edit-a-thons’ — these are a great way to get started and work together with editors from around the world