Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

Addressing the systemic gender bias that pervades the free online encyclopedia

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

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.”

Living arts: learning how to edit Wikipedia

The Varsity attends AGO's Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

Living arts: learning how to edit Wikipedia

I was overwhelmed; I was late; I was sweating; and I was uncertain of where to go. I had just stepped into the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where I was about to attend my first ever Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. The edit-a-thon was hosted by the AGO as part of the Art + Feminism initiative.

After some searching — namely, wandering aimlessly for about 10 minutes — I found the staircase to the Education Commons where the event was supposed to take place. Upon turning the corner I was trampled by a flock of screaming children. As I quickly discovered, the Education Commons is right beside the Hands on Learning Centre, where parents drop off their kids after they start manhandling Group of Seven paintings with their sticky fingers. Once my head stopped spinning and my ears ceased ringing, I looked over to a row of tables where people were diligently typing away on their laptops. The serenity of their focus immediately set me at ease. I walked to the information table and was greeted by a friendly volunteer who kindly forgave me for being late and created my first Wikipedia account.

With my first task completed and my anxious stomach settled, I made a beeline for the refreshments. Cookie crumbs raining down my chin, I followed a volunteer’s pointed finger towards a tutorial where I would learn the basics of Wikipedia editing.

The tutorial was full of women being instructed by Amy Furness, known on Wikipedia as ‘Artchivist1.’ Furness, the primary organizer of the Toronto event, has a quiet intensity and a clear passion for Wikipedia. She informed us that these events were happening all over the world. As she pointed out, according to the Wikimedia Foundation, only 10 per cent of Wikipedia contributors identify as female.

Art + Feminism believes this leads to a gender imbalance in content. The initiative’s overall goal for an edit-a-thon event is to focus on using Wikipedia to highlight women who have made significant contributions to art and are underrepresented on the online encyclopedia.

Thanks to Furness, I began to feel fully equipped with the basics of Wikipedia etiquette and coding. In the main hall where we were to commence our “quilting bee,” as one volunteer described the event, people with yellow stickers that said ‘WIKI’ started showing up. The WIKIs were available to answer any questions that newbies like us might have.

I spoke with one woman, Anne, who is a Wikipedia administrator. She helped me out when I encountered trouble with my edits. Anne is a lively retiree with a Wi-Fi stick that she takes with her everywhere. The stick allows her to edit on the GO train or in the car. She told me that she has edited over 60,000 Wikipedia articles. She joked that editing Wikipedia articles was much better than doing crosswords in order to pass the time. I have to agree.

I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment upon editing my first article. The first edit I made was to add an ‘a’ to a sentence in an article about a Canadian painter and sketch artist named  Caroline Armington. The AGO library was co-hosting the event, so their staff were available to help the editors using the library resources. I was given a file on Armington, full of newspaper clippings and other fact sheets. By the end of the event I had only had enough time to start fixing minor errors on Armington’s article. Even though I made little headway, I was immediately hooked. I felt as though I was contributing to history and to posterity, my focus interrupted only by the screams of the playing children. “This is for you!” I yelled, as I shook my fist at them jokingly.