"All the female books go here, and all the male books go here." Via c_l_b/Flickr
There’s an old riddle: The cops raid a house looking for a murderer named Robert. They break in and find a firefighter, a mechanic, and a mailman all sitting around playing poker and immediately arrest the mailman. How did they know the mailman was the killer? Aside from the fact that it was a mailman (so duh), it was because the firefighter and mechanic were women, but your sexist brain automatically concluded all three were men.
This riddle exemplifies our tendency to associate certain roles as male roles, which has been the topic of debate in the latest Wikipedia sexism scandal. When the American novelist Amanda Filipacchi noticed that she’d been moved from the “American novelists” category to the “American women novelists” category, along with all of the other female American novelists, she wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling out the sexist categorization.
“It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world," she wrote.
Meanwhile, John Pack Lambert, the 32-year-old Wayne State University student mostly responsible for systematically funneling female novelists into a gendered subcategory from his home in the Detroit suburbs, claims he wasn’t motivated by sexism — only his obsessive, ever-present impulse to diffuse major categories into subcategories on Wikipedia.
As he told James Gleick of the New York Review of Books Blog, “This whole hullabaloo is really missing the point. The people who are making a big deal about this are not being up-front about what happens if we do not diffuse categories.”
Whatever Lambert's motives were, this episode has unearthed an interesting tendency of Wikipedia’s editors — the creation of subcategories within major categories grouping notable people is almost always to denote if an individual is female or an ethnic minority; i.e. nobody is making “white male” categories. As Gleick pointed out, there are sometimes practical and well-intended reasons for this:
The editor who originally created the American women novelists category—a Londoner named Gareth E. Kegg—voted to merge it with American novelists and said that he had hoped the category would be “an inspiration to young women to know how many others have written before.” He was appalled, he said, "that there are less Wikipedia articles on women poets than pornographic actresses, a depressing statistic."
What’s truly problematic about this situation though isn’t the sexism of any one Wikipedia editor, but the fact that our primary source of global, encyclopedic information is dominated by one demographic — one that is inclined to view women and minorities as “the other” and label them as such.
As Forbes author Deanna Zandt wrote, “Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a young, white, child-free man’s perspective, of course– it’s just that there are tons of other perspectives in the world that should influence how a story gets told."
This is why Wikipedia is often the backdrop for events that are undeniably sexist, like when the woman who started the Tropes vs Women in Video Games project on Kickstarter had her Wikipedia page vandalized by a mob of editors posting hate speech and pornographic images, or when the Wikipedia entry for “Woman” somehow became a repository for derogatory slang terms.
Zandt encourages women to edit Wikipedia and regularly hosts a course on how to do so. Although, as I recently learned when I took her course, there’s a WYSIWYG editor in place now, so the barrier to entry that once existed (which forced editors to learn the WikiText markup language) is no longer there. Now there’s no excuse to not edit sexist bullshit when you see it, so dig in.
Note: This story has been updated to further emphasize that Lambert was not the only Wikipedia editor recategorizing female authors.