Lack of Women in Wikipedia
by Emi Knape | published Nov. 3rd, 2022
How would you feel if you never got recognized for an accomplishment? Imagine creating something groundbreaking and never be remembered for it, let alone acknowledged.
Unfortunately, this is the case for many women’s stories, especially on Wikipedia.
While anyone can edit articles on Wikipedia, it actually operates as a male-dominated platform. With this, many notable elements of women’s history are lost and information is skewed.
As stated in The Atlantic, “it’s estimated that 90% of the encyclopedia’s top editors are male.”
With predominantly male editors, it’s inevitable that Wikipedia articles would tend to skew towards their interests and point of views.
The lack of female editors has also lead to a lack of female recognition in the content. The same article from The Atlantic also states, "only 17.67% of over 1.5 million biographies on the site are about women."
When female editors do contribute many of their articles get taken over by male edits, thus discouraging them to continue.
While there is a lack of women editors on Wikipedia, there are many 'edit-a-thons' and other events which aim to increase the number of female editors. These edit-a-thons help teach and encourage people to correct grammatical and factual errors throughout Wikipedia.
Frances Andreu, RIT's Digital Initiative Librarian, and Rebekah Walker, Librarian for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, have firsthand experience as Wikipedia editors.
Every year, Andreu and Walker help organize the Women in Wikipedia event for RIT Libraries. Since 2017, the event has been held in March to honor Women’s History Month with the goal of amplifying the stories of women on Wikipedia.
There are different ways to run edit-a-thons, which makes them easy for anyone to enjoy. Some edit-a-thons have a theme – like editing a certain topic – while others focus on collaboration and building up Wikipedia's content. Others are merely just a way for editors to meet up.
RIT Library's Women in Wikipedia event strikes a balance between being structured and more casual.
“Most edit-a-thons are hands-off, but RIT is more hands-on [since] there are easy edits you can do," Andreu said.
Edit-a-thons are largely self-driven, with little direction and more freedom amongst editors. However, the Women in Wikipedia event is focused on actively teaching new editors how to edit and collaborate on certain topics and tasks.
During the Women in Wikipedia event, there are different areas to work in. Participants can correct grammatical mistakes, add brand new content or manage the group's contributions.
Some people come to the event with a specific page that they want to edit or a female figure that they would like to write about.
“Sometimes they come in with an idea of what they want to do, so we help them,” Frances explained. “Emily Sibley Watson didn’t have a Wikipedia page, but someone from the Memorial Art Gallery had [information on Sibley Watson] and needed help creating [her page].”
With the help of edit-a-thons like RIT Library’s Women in Wikipedia event, anyone can gain experience editing Wikipedia pages to do justice for women whose stories may not be represented on the site.
Where are the Women?
All this begs the question: Why is Wikipedia editing a male-dominated field?
"We don’t know an official reason. No one really does. However, there are many articles about why [women] are uncomfortable. It’s a perpetuating problem,” Walker explained.
According to the Harvard Business Review, it’s women's lack of confidence in their knowledge that keeps them from using the platform. Many are hesitant to edit due to the fear of criticism from men and the uncomfortable feeling while interfering with other people’s work.
“If the dominant editors are men and the culture of editors is male, then women are more disempowered to deal with some of the difficulties and ramifications of editing.”
This hesitancy has lead a digital divide of content.
Tamar Carroll, the Department of History's Department Chair, wrote about the site's issues and biases due to the lack of female editors. Carroll's piece touches on how the lack of publications with female accomplishments relates to the lack of articles written about notable women.
For example, one of Wikipedia's rules for editing is that the content must come from a published source.
However, throughout the course of history, women's achievements were not the focus of the media, and it can be difficult to write significant articles about them.
With an abundance of male editors, the significance of many articles are also skewed towards their interests.
Many famous male figures and male-dominated TV shows have more extensive profiles when compared to female figures and shows, and the female-centric topics that do appear on Wikipedia are often shown in a less-favorable light.
“The Sex and the City page has more criticisms and controversy, whereas the Sopranos’ [page] focuses more on the character development,” Andreu explained.
Another comparison is the biographies of male and female celebrities. Many male celebrities have articles that highlight their careers, whereas females have extensive 'tabloid' content, with sections on their family and relationships.
“Madonna’s page has a whole section about past marriages, and Sean Penn merely has a sentence.”
“Madonna’s page has a whole section about past marriages, and Sean Penn merely has a sentence.” Walker stated. “You can’t make a 100% comparison, but it’s interesting.”
Finally, with the majority of editors being male, even successful women have significantly shorter articles than men in the same field. For example, when Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018, people quickly discovered that she didn't even have a Wikipedia page. A deeper dive found that a page had been drafted but was rejected for being insignificant.
The end result is an under representation of women's history on Wikipedia.
The lack of female representation on Wikipedia has left a number of stories untold. Hosting events like RIT’s Women in Wikipedia event and other edit-a-thons bring more awareness to the issue and introduce new talent to the platform. In a world rich with history, who are we to forget those who contributed their accomplishments?