Image: Flickr/Maia Weinstock
It’s no secret that women have long been underrepresented in science—and still are—but the oversight goes beyond workplace equality. Even when women make it to the heady ranks of their male peers, they can still be overlooked by the history books, a case in point being Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to our understanding of DNA, which went frustratingly under-recognised until much later.
Ahead of International Women’s Day on Saturday, the London-based Royal Society is today holding an event to help address the balance in the unrivalled font of modern knowledge: Wikipedia. They’re holding an edit-a-thon dedicated to promoting diversity in science, particularly on the gender front.
It’s being run by John Byrne who holds the brilliant title of “Wikimedian in Residence” at the Royal Society, which is the UK’s national academy of science.
I spoke to Byrne just before things kicked off, and he told me that he didn’t think underrepresentation of women was a problem specific to Wikipedia. “I think to some extent Wikipedia reflects the general culture, but actually I remain to be convinced that it’s particularly a Wikipedian problem; I think it’s a problem in the culture,” he said.
Of course, given the imbalance of male to female scientists throughout history, there will always be more male scientists with a presence on the encyclopedia. Nonetheless, some people have complained that women scientists are still more often missing or acknowledged only in brief stub articles than men. Byrne refutes that this is a general trend—though perhaps only because of activities like today's, which are expressly aimed at acknowledging women’s scientific contributions.
“We’ve actually run out of female FRSs [fellows elected to the Royal Society], probably really through previous events like this!” he said when I asked for examples of pages people might add today. “But there’s a Science Council list of 100 leading scientists from 2012, I think, and there’s actually quite a few women on that that don’t have articles.”
He added that, “although there are fewer women FRSs, all the female FRSs that have ever been have a biography on Wikipedia and that’s certainly not true for the men.” Women make up about five percent of the total list.
While the oversight of women’s inclusion in the scientific history books can perhaps be explained away to an extent by old-fashioned cultural (read: sexist) attitudes, what’s more deflating is the continued lack of recognition for women working in the field today. The Science Council list Byrne referred to contains the 100 leading UK practicing scientists, so it’s a little dismaying to learn that some of those elite women still aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. In today’s world, who are you if you don’t have a Wikipedia page? Possibly one of the top 100 scientists in the country, it transpires.
While one aim of today’s event is to add and update Wikipedia pages dedicated to women scientists, Byrne also hopes to train more people—and most attendees are women—in the art of Wikipedia editing.
As such it’s kind of a double-pronged attack on gender bias in science and tech, as women currently make up a dismally low proportion of Wikipedia editors, which only serves to illustrate the broader gender gap on the internet. It seems instinctive that the more diverse the writers of the history books (or of the online information repository that has taken off where history books left off) are, the more diverse and unbiased the content will be.
Wikipedia’s been plagued with sexism in the past likely stemming from the fact that those who decide how its information is ordered largely belong to the same group (white men), such as when women writers suddenly found themselves added to the “American women novelists” category, an act that wouldn’t have been problematic except for it meant they were removed from the “American novelists” page, which, for the record, was not renamed “American men novelists.”
According to Byrne, the readership of Wikipedia is pretty balanced across men and women, but the same can’t be said about the editing community. While exact figures are hard to come by, in part owing to methodological problems with studies in this area, Byrne said that “the consistent picture is that between eight and 13 percent, I think, of the editors are women.”
He suggested several reasons for this, including the imbalance of men and women in IT, and women being put off by an online culture than can be “quite rude.” I’d add that it’s not just rudeness, but more specifically misogyny—targeted rudeness—that can dissuade women from getting involved in online communities. There’s a difference between a general “rude” atmosphere and having abuse lobbed in your own direction.
Interestingly, Byrne thought the imbalance between people contributing to Wikipedia by writing large amounts of text—adding a whole new article, for instance—would be less than for editing practices overall.
Anyone interested in joining the edit-a-thon today can do so remotely; details are on (what else?) its Wikipedia page. If you’re in London, there’s also some space left if you want to hot-foot it over to the Royal Society. They’re also holding another event on the 25th March that will tackle diversity in science more generally.