Apparently, Sexism Has A Serious Grip On Wikipedia Too & Here's What People Have Done To Change That

Our culture has a glaring tendency to elevate the achievements of men over the achievements of women. In fact, according to Jami Mathewson, Educational Partnerships Manager at Wiki Education, only about 17.5 percent of biographies on Wikipedia are of women.

“There are so many notable women whose contributions to the world are missing,” Mathewson told Her Campus. “Wikipedia is read by almost 500 million people every single month, and that’s a really big number. It’s the first result on Google, or on any search.”

Wikipedia is a created and edited by volunteers across the world, meaning that it’s fairly easy for anyone to create a biography about a notable woman. So why does Wikipedia hold such a blatant gender discrepancy when it comes to representation? Well, according to Mathewson, about 80 percent of volunteer editors on Wikipedia are male. 

“We really see that reflection in the content,” she said.

Wikipedia thoroughly reflects the biases of its editors, and because the editors are primarily male, these biases often overlook or ignore the accomplishments of women. This Women’s History Month, Wiki Education is partnering with the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) to change that. How? Professors across the country are having their students update or create Wikipedia pages on women as part of their assigned coursework.

Only 10-20% of editors on @Wikipedia identify as women, compared with 68% of the students who improve Wikipedia in our program. Diverse authorship is an important step for equity on the world’s most popular online encyclopedia! #InternationalWomensDay #PressforProgress

— Wiki Education (@WikiEducation) March 8, 2018

“WIki Education is a non-profit organization ultimately aiming to improve the quality of information on Wikipedia,” Mathewson explained. “We designed that as improving either the quality of the content and the equity of the content...About three and a half years ago, we started a partnership with the National Women's Studies Association. Their members, who are primarily professors of Women’s Studies and Gender Studies and Sexuality Studies, they’re people who could participate in our program to assign students to write Wikipedia articles.”

Thanks to Wiki Education’s program model, over 6000 university students across the United States have updated Wikipedia as part of the assigned coursework. Allison Kimmich, executive director of the NWSA, told Her Campus, “We are aiming to add more content about women, gender, and feminist issues. Most Wikipedia editors are white men, and our collaboration adds diversity to the mix as students edit and improve articles and add new ones.”

Mathewson said, “Since those students are already learning about important topics to Women’s Studies, they’re researching and they’re writing. We then, as an organization, provide training materials and resources to help the students learn how to turn this research into a Wikipedia article so the rest of the world can really benefit from their learning and learn from it as well.”

She noted that students have access to academic texts that may include better representation of the accomplishments of women, but most of the general public relies on Wikipedia. “The general public doesn’t have access to academic peer-reviewed journals, and doesn’t have access to maybe the context and training and education it takes to understand those,” she said. “So being able to give students that voice, give women or any student who’s taking a Women’s Studies course, the ability to bring their voice and join in.”

Students have already added 2.44 million words to articles about women and gender studies, including articles on Myrna Weissman, Geraldine Lawhorn, and Rachel Bean.

A huge thank you to the Wikigap initiative for spearheading the inclusion of more Zimbabwean women on Wikipedia. I’m so humbled to have been nominated for this. We must continue to bring about a more gender-equal internet! #PressForProgress pic.twitter.com/qNEbUZLsWY

— Fadzayi Mahere (@advocatemahere) March 8, 2018

Kristen Fontana, a student from CUNY Staten Island, updated the page of Ines Cifuentes as an assignment for her physics class.

“She already had a Wikipedia page, but it was called a stub,” Fontana explained to Her Campus. “That basically means that it’s not official and it wasn’t really done well, so I organized it. If you look at a regular Wikipedia page, usually it’s organized by early life, personal life, and stuff like that. Basically, I separated it into sections and I added more information so people could get to know more about her.”

Cifuentes was one of the most prominent seismologists of all time, so it’s remarkable that her page was only a stub before Fontana updated it.

“She was born in London, but then when she was growing up, she lived in Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay and Guatemala,” Fontana said. “And then, in her stay in Chile, there was an earthquake that devastated the land and it really inspired her to be a seismologist. From there, she went to high school in Maryland, and she got a BS in physics in Swarthmore College, and a Masters of Science at Stanford, and she went to Columbia for her Ph.D. She was actually one of the first women to receive a doctorate in geophysics from Columbia. I just found it very awe-inspiring how she was able accomplish so much.”

For Fontana, learning about Cifuentes’ accomplishments was personally inspiring: “I’m an engineering major and a majority of my teachers are male. I have one female teacher, and she’s my physics class instructor,” she explained. “From my point of view, engineering is a male-dominated major, so learning about women or people of minorities that pursue these jobs encourages you and reminds you that you can do anything no matter what race or gender you are...I’m in a small class and I’m the only girl engineer, so just reading about her it’s very inspiring.”

Aurora Cid, another student at CUNY Staten Island, updated the page of stellar astrophysicist Erika Bohm-Vitense. Cid notes that she is pursuing astrophysics, so it was particularly important for her to learn about someone who made so many contributions to that field.

“Erika was a woman in science during a time when women in science wasn’t really a popular thing,” Cid explained. “She actually contributed a lot to what people cite in astrophysics research, specifically stellar astrophysics. She contributed a lot to Mixing Length theory, which talks about convection zones of the stars. She has, like, 200 published papers and she’s cited a ton because her research was so fundamental to stellar astrophysics.”

Cid said she hopes that increased representation of women in science will positively affect others the same way it affected her. “Growing up, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do because I didn’t have that representation, I didn’t have those examples like Erika Bohm-Vitense,” she said. “So I took time off between high school and college because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Cid’s defining moment was when she, for the first time, internalized the idea that women could be successful scientists.

“Then I went to a lecture at the Museum of Natural History here in New York,” she recalled, “and it was led by a woman and I thought that was just so powerful. So to then research Erika Bohm-Vitense and find out about how her work is so fundamental just really invigorated me and I was like, yeah, this is what I want to do because this is important work.”

She hopes that this increased representation will provide more girls with positive female role models. “I think that [representation] really matters, especially for younger people, younger girls, younger people of color,” she said. “I think that having those examples out and having this information out there is really important. Wiki Education gives us this power to say, these are the examples and representation that I wanted and now I’m giving it to that next generation. That’s really powerful.”

“Students should be educated on the accomplishments of women because those accomplishments are an accurate reflection of women’s contributions to the world," Kimmich noted. "At the same time, understanding the range of women’s accomplishments helps students imagine possibilities for their own lives.”

Long story short, representation is important, and the accomplishments of women have been ignored way too long. Kimmich said she encourages college students to get involved in the movement to recognize women’s accomplishments: “College students have powerful voices and can partner with faculty to challenge inequities on their campuses. For example, women are underrepresented at the full professor rank and overrepresented as adjuncts and contingent faculty members.”

According to Mathewson, this Wiki Education’s project could directly benefit the world beyond those who are editing the pages too: “Wikipedia is where the public goes for information and makes their decision when they’re in the voting booth,” she said. “So making sure they’re not just hearing from one demographic of people is really important for representing the world’s knowledge.”