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Wikipedia still hasn’t fixed its colossal gender gap

A tiny fraction of the site’s contributors and subjects are women. It’s working to change that—but some community members are resistant to change.

Wikipedia still hasn’t fixed its colossal gender gap
[Photo: Lane Hartwell on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation]

In its 19 years of existence, Wikipedia has become the world’s most-used reference work—and the ninth most-visited website period. That’s a tribute to the community that creates its articles. But among contributors, the gender imbalance is gigantic—and it shows in the articles they produce.

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Of the over 135,000 active editors on the site, surveys indicate that only 8.5% to 16% are female. In 2018, Wikimedia disclosed that only 17.67% of over 1.5 million biographies on the site are about women. The issue has been getting attention recently because even when female editors do contribute to the site, their work is often heavily edited—or pages written about women are flagged for removal by their male counterparts. 

Katherine Maher, CEO and executive director of Wikimedia, the nonprofit parent organization of Wikipedia, says that when Wikipedia started out, it wasn’t obvious it would need heavy policing. But that has changed as the site’s scale and impact on the world have grown. She spoke about this at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon early this month.

“We started out to build an encyclopedia; we didn’t start out to build a movement,” says Maher. “Yet there is this power that comes with this idea that knowledge creates a better place for the world, and that people want to participate in it.”

“If we’re here to build the world’s knowledge, then we have to invite the world in,” she adds.  “So we’ve really consciously reoriented to say, ‘What can we do to break down systems of power and privilege that have excluded people from participating in knowledge historically, and how do we direct our resources to that?”

Wikimedia has launched initiatives to encourage more women to participate. The Wikimedia Gender Gap Project promotes groups such as Women in Red, WikiWomen’s Collaborative, and WikiProject Women, which aim to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of women and subjects related to them. Hosting edit-a-thons, these groups train women how to properly edit, and they focus on creating articles about women. They also encourage women all over the world to participate, providing a sense of community and support to those who may be on the border.

Even with these initiatives in place, Wikipedia’s gender imbalance persists. Dr. Jessica Wade started contributing to Wikipedia in 2018 and has since created over 800 articles on scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ+. She has a vast amount of experience in regard to the issues that women editors and subjects face when someone chooses to write about them.

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They seem quick to criticize and tag for deletion, but slow to help you improve a page.”

“I’ve been through some especially depressing editing discussions,” she says. “I think some of the old-school editors don’t like all the press around the gender and ethnicity gap on the site, and they occasionally target me, systematically tagging the biographies I’ve written for deletion. . . . They seem quick to criticize and tag for deletion, but slow to help you improve a page.” On top of that, editors often peg sources as being noncredible, even if they’re from reputable universities and publications.

Providing sources and citations for Wikipedia articles about women can be a challenge, since accomplished women may have received less media coverage and general attention than men of similar achievement. Wade argues that the issue isn’t that these women are any less notable than a man, but that Wikipedia’s notability guidelines mandate strict standards that favor old white men.

Maher acknowledges the problem and says that it’s bigger than Wikipedia’s coverage of women. “The majority of the internet has been built by people sitting in Europe and North America, and the majority of the world does not have that lived experience. By the end of this century, 40% of the world’s population is going to live on the continent of Africa. What does it mean for the rest of the world to join an internet that wasn’t built by them?”

Wikimedia is taking steps to encourage less-represented voices to participate, such as hosting educational programs and training modules and encouraging women and people of color to get involved. That’s just a start. The organization also needs to address the concerns around the notability and source guidelines, taking into account the cracks that women and people of color fall through.

Wade argues that it’s more than just Wikimedia’s burden to bear. “Wikimedia Foundation is a small charity, and the thousands of people who create content for Wikipedia day-to-day are volunteers,” she says. “How can the foundation police that? Wikipedia reflects bias in society—if journalists don’t write about women or people of color, and we don’t award them prizes or fellowships, it is tricky to prove their notability on Wikipedia. . . . We need to get better at decorating women and people of color with the same levels of recognition we give their male counterparts.”

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