Wikipedia is not only one of the most popular websites on the internet, but it has also become a commonly consulted educational reference for enthusiasts and experts alike. The site is at once the starting point of scholarly research and the ending point of everyday research.
But “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” suffers from systemic gender bias.
“Everyone goes there, so making sure the encyclopedia is a fair representative of the world is a great thing,” wrote Farah Qaiser to The Varsity. Qaiser is a U of T graduate student who has organized multiple Wikipedia edit-a-thons to boost representation on the website.
A number of student groups, including Women in Chemistry Toronto, Toronto Science Policy Network, and Women Of Colour in STEAMM Canada, have helped organize Wikipedia edit-a-thons in partnership with U of T Libraries. Each workshop session teaches participants the basics of editing Wikipedia pages and lets participants build on and create new Wikipedia pages. The most recent Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at Gerstein Science Information Centre added 2,560 words on Wikipedia pages for Canadian female scientists.
Representation is important because it leads to recognition and acceptance. It’s especially important on Wikipedia because of its role as a central junction for obtaining information. Thus, editing Wikipedia has become the newest frontier in balanced representation.
A 2018 study by the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, found that only 5.2–13.6 per cent of Wikimedia project contributors are women. Women also make fewer edits, which has resulted in fewer female administrators — gatekeeping positions with privileges like the ability to block others from editing.
There is also an overwhelming focus on English Wikipedia. A 2011 study by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 76 per cent of all Wikipedia users make edits to English Wikipedia. Focusing on regional languages not only pushes for greater diversity in contributors, but also in relevant content.
“While it shouldn’t matter who edits Wikipedia, their biases matter,” wrote Qaiser. “It’s reflected in facts like only 17.67 per cent of English Wikipedia biographies are about women. That’s a very tiny number.”
Wikipedia is an open-access community. Everyone and anyone with access to the internet can edit and create articles. However, the editorial community is still predominantly male. According to Alex Jung, U of T’s Wikipedian-in-residence, one of the reasons for this predominance is a culture of gatekeeping and pushback toward women.
“Female editors have anecdotally reported that they face targeted editing on Wikipedia,” wrote Qaiser. For example, Dr. Jess Wade, British physicist, challenged herself to create one Wikipedia page a day to recognize the achievements of female scientists.
This February, Wade wrote her 500th entry. Qaiser said that as Wade became vocal about her efforts, her pages have been specifically targeted for editing.
Another reason for Wikipedia’s gender bias problem is a lack of sources. Wikipedia is merely reflective of a larger trend of underrepresentation. There simply aren’t many sources on women and marginalized communities. To counter this, Jung advocates searching harder for sources that tell untold stories.
UNESCO recently organized #WIKI4WOMEN on March 8, International Women’s Day. It advocated for a public effort to help share the stories of extraordinary women.
Editing Wikipedia can also be done any time from the comfort of one’s home and is very easy to do because of the user-friendly visual editor that Wikipedia uses. “It’s like editing a Word document,” said Qaiser. Jung is currently working on a guide to editing Wikipedia, available soon on the U of T Libraries’ website.
Contributing could even be as simple as uploading images. “There are a lot of pages on professors at U of T, but none of them have pictures,” noted Qaiser. “It’s as simple as taking a photograph of them — with their permission of course — and uploading it onto Wikipedia.”