Is Wikipedia mansplaining the world to you? Depending on where you sit on the feminist spectrum, this may or may not be something you’re inclined to even notice. But whether you’re sensitive to the nuances of gender bias or not, there’s evidence to suggest that the answer is that yes, Wikipedia is sexist.
Using computational linguistics, a team of researchers from Germany and Switzerland says they’ve uncovered an anti-female bias across Wikipedia’s millions of articles. They also analyzed the hyperlinked relationships between pages and found that articles about women linked to articles about men much more frequently than the other way around.
The research, which was led by German social scientist Claudia Wagner, compared the language used to describe prominent men and women on Wikipedia with the verbiage found within other academic databases of well-known people. Unsurprisingly, the mostly male-edited site exhibited a linguistic double standard.
As the MIT Technology Review explains:
Wagner and co say that articles about women tend to emphasize the fact that they are about a women by overusing words like “woman,” “female,” or “lady” while articles about men tend not to contain words like “man,” “masculine,” or “gentleman.” Words like “married,” “divorced,” “children,” or “family” are also much more frequently used in articles about women, they say.
The team thinks this kind of bias is evidence for the practice among Wikipedia editors of considering maleness as the “null gender.” In other words, there is a tendency to assume an article is about a man unless otherwise stated. “This seems to be a plausible assumption due to the imbalance between articles about men and women,” they say.
This isn’t the first time that Wikipedia’s diversity and editorial neutrality have been called into question, especially with respect to gender. In an attempt to stamp out a raging edit war surrounding the Gamergate controversy, the Wikimedia Foundation blocked five feminist editors from making changes to the Gamergate entry and any article related to “gender or sexuality, broadly construed.” As the Guardian notes, editors at the other end of the Gamergate spectrum had also “been sanctioned by the committee,” but reportedly not as harshly as the Gamergate critics, much to the dismay of pro-feminist observers.
Meanwhile, after U.S. military whistleblower and WikiLeaks coconspirator Bradley Manning came out as transgendered in 2013 and asked to be referred to as Chelsea Manning, a conflict erupted among Wikipedia editors over which name to use. The entry title was eventually changed to Chelsea Manning, but not before some allegedly transphobic editors were banned from editing gender-related articles. At the same time, Wikipedia’s arbitration committee censured some pro-Chelsea editors who accused others of being transphobic, an attempt at neutrality that didn’t sit well with transgender activist groups.
This sort of systemic bias extends beyond gender and sexuality. As this ultra-meta Wikipedia entry about Wikipedia’s own biases spells out, the “average Wikipedian” is not only male, but “technically inclined,” “formally educated” and an English speaker from predominantly Christian countries in the Northern hemisphere. Without explicitly saying so, the article seems to suggest that Wikipedia’s stable of crowdsourced editors is pretty much a small army comprised mostly of nerdy white dudes.
Not surprisingly given the homogenous demographics, Wikipedia has also been criticized for a dearth of information about black history. To help balance things out, the Schomburg Center recently announced a Wikipedia edit-a-thon timed with Black History Month. This edit-a-thon approach has also been used on more than one occasion to beef up the site’s coverage of prominent female scientists and engineers.
To its credit, the Wikimedia Foundation has acknowledged the disparity and vowed to increase the number of female editors to 25% by this year. It’s an ambitious goal, given that number is believed to currently sit between 8.5 and 16 percent.