Combatting gender bias, one Wikipedia article at a time

Love it or loathe it, we all use Wikipedia. In spite of our professors’ warnings, the online encyclopaedia is most students’ first port of call for instant information.

A survey published in 2011, however, found that there was a shocking gender bias in the volunteer-edited database. The Wikimedia Foundation found that less than 10 per cent of its contributors are female. Although the reasons for this disparity might be unclear, its practical effects are not: Wikipedia relies on the expertise of its contributors to build up its databases, meaning that if men are responsible for 90 per cent of the contributions, the content of the encyclopedia disproportionately reflects masculine interests.

This lack of diversity manifests itself in several ways. A quick search of two popular TV shows, both released on Netflix in the same year, illustrates the imbalance of information. The Wikipedia page on the Emmy Award-winning “Orange Is The New Black”, with the predominantly female audience, includes only a list of cast and characters. The corresponding page on “House of Cards”, however, offers mini-biographies on most major and minor characters and extensive full-season plot summaries.

As you frantically scour Wikipedia the night before a deadline, the information you receive is skewed by a significant gender bias. While you may be able to find a Wikipedia article on just about anything, topics relating to women’s issues are disproportionately under-informed.

This prompted Siân Evans and Jacqueline Mabey to establish the Art+Feminism campaign, organising a series of “edit-a-thons” to address the discrepancy in Wikipedia articles relating specifically to women and the arts. The inaugural edit-a-thon was held last February, and around 600 participants from across the world came together to create more than 100 new Wikipedia pages and improve upon around 90 pre-existing ones.

This year, on International Women’s Day, another worldwide edit-a-thon was held. I headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the event base for Toronto, to see what was happening.

Stressing that no editing experience was necessary, the event started with a short tutorial on how to edit and upload information to Wikipedia, and experts remained on-hand throughout the afternoon to offer one-on-one coaching. We were taught how to edit a page, the importance of writing without bias, when and where footnotes are necessary, and what counts as a reliable source. Then, using the wealth of resources available in the E.P. Taylor Research Library & Archives, we set about to correct the gender imbalance — one Wikipedia article at a time.

Across the weekend and across the globe, over 330 new articles were created and another 450 significantly improved. At the AGO, Canadian artists Penelope Stewart and Lori Blondeau, along with 27 others, were given Wikipedia pages.
I would never have thought to contribute to Wikipedia before discovering the Art+Feminism campaign, but the event highlighted how such a small gesture — sharing your knowledge — can help reverse the gender bias and correct the imbalances that manifest themselves in the most subtle yet significant ways — simply searching Wikipedia, for example.

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