Editing Sexism Out of Wikipedia

Inside the movement to bring gender equality to the web’s encyclopedia.

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Jun 12 2014, 9:00am
Image: Art+Feminism/Tumblr

He calls himself Malik Shabazz. I don’t know his real name, only that he’s a 51-year-old actuary and part of a small group of established Wikipedia editors battling what they see as gender bias on the site.

Malik is a member of the gender bias task force, a subset of the Wikiproject to counter systemic bias on Wikipedia. The task force is a group of 12 long-time editors who are dedicated to identifying gender bias where it occurs—in articles, discussions, and policies—and trying to level the playing field.

The group is part of a larger effort to combat sexism on the crowdsourced encyclopedia. Wikipedia has a well known less-than-stellar track record when it comes to gender equality. In 2011, researchers at the University of Minneapolis found that only 16 percent of Wikipedia’s tens of thousands of editors were women, and that the gap showed no signs of narrowing.

Jacqueline Mabey and Michael Mandiberg, organizers of the recent Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon event in New York that encouraged attendees to update and add Wikipedia entries about women, explained the root of this disparity to me over email.

“The reasons for the gender gap are up for debate: suggestions include leisure inequality, how gender socialization shapes public comportment, and the contentious nature of Wikipedia’s talk pages. However, the practical effect of this disparity is not: content is skewed by the lack of female participation, resulting in systemic absences in an increasingly important repository of shared knowledge,” they wrote.

These “systemic absences” aren’t limited to gender. Geography is also a factor, as a recent Oxford study also found. Naturally, the Russian-language edition of Wikipedia is heavily skewed towards Russian historical figures, events, and locations. Countries that don’t have the adequate technological infrastructure to make Wikipedia edits are often underrepresented.

Gender follows a similar pattern, a a recent study from the University of Toulouse, the University of Milan, and the Barcelona Media Foundation suggests. 

Most Wikipedia editors are white, Western men, and it's easy to write about what you know.

The researchers used several algorithms to map the “influence” of historical figures on Wikipedia by calculating the amount of incoming and outgoing links to and from their entries. Across the 24 language editions of Wikipedia, the study found that the most “influential” historical figures were nearly all white, Western men. The only woman to crack the top 10 was Elizabeth II, and only 5 made it into the top 100.

Advocates for gender equality on Wikipedia argue that this is due more to the exclusion of women’s historical contributions on the site than the facts of history themselves. Of course, positions of power have long been reserved for men in many parts of the world—and, thankfully, that is slowly changing—but that such a staggeringly small number of women rank in the top 100 most historically influential people on Wikipedia, an increasingly important source of information, is still worrisome.

“This is the first study that we know of to analyze the gender gap in content from a statistical perspective; previously the content gap was articulated through a comparative reading of two similar gendered articles,” Mabey and Mandiberg told me. Previous studies compared the length and frequency of edits between the articles for Sex and the City and Seinfeld, for example. Obviously, it wasn’t the most reliable approach and assumed a lot about pop culture preferences in relation to gender.

So, where does this supposed bias come from? Malik believes that it stems from the collective viewpoint of a largely homogenous group of editors. “I think the bias exists because most Wikipedia editors are white, Western men, and it's easy to write about what you know,” Malik said.

According to Pablo Aragón, one of the authors of the influencers study, the phenomenon of women’s contributions to history being downplayed or ignored is not unique to Wikipedia. “I think the skewness is not related to the concept of Wikipedia. It’s a concept of how women have found trouble and difficulty in being recognized in global history,” he told me in an interview.

Aragón was also quick to mention that while there may be a correlation between the number of female editors on Wikipedia and the lack of historically influential women on the site, that doesn’t mean that a causal relationship exists. “There could be a connection between the two of them, but from a scientific point of view, there is no proof,” he explained.

And yet, that Wikipedia is skewed by factors such as individual interest and the idiosyncratic tendencies and geographic location of contributors is exactly what Aragon and his colleagues’ study illustrated. Arguably, it’s what makes Wikipedia a successful crowdsourcing platform in the first place; contributors bring their niche knowledge to the table.

To level the playing field, activists are taking direct action: actually writing Wikipedia articles. “I try to combat gender bias by writing articles about notable people who don't have Wikipedia articles,” Malik said. “I was surprised, for example, that Susan L. Taylor, the long-time editor of Essence, didn't have a biography. So I wrote one.”

Image: Art+Feminism/Tumblr

By generously hyperlinking the entry to related articles, you can drive more traffic to the page, sort of like SEO for Wikipedia. That in turn increases the entry’s “influence,” as Aragón’s paper demonstrated.

Wikipedia’s editor community has been accused of being trollish and borderline misogynistic.

But to get to the root of Wikipedia’s gender imbalance, you may have to look at the culture within the organization itself. Wikipedia’s editor community has been accused of being trollish and borderline misogynistic.

The same 2011 paper that identified the gender gap in Wikipedia’s editor base found that edits made by women are at a much higher risk of being overturned than those made by men. “This means that a much higher percentage of women at having their contributions negated by other editors which is an extremely disheartening experience and contributes to their continuing lack of presence,” the study found.

Mabey and Mandiberg are trying to transform the “brogrammer” culture by recruiting conscientious editors through their Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thons. The first event was held in February, and they’re planning another for October. The Edit-a-thon event format has proven popular with other organizations as well, and the London-based Royal Society held their own in March to raise awareness about women’s contribution to science.

“I think combating gender bias is important work because it may help make Wikipedia into a more universal encyclopedia. Hopefully other readers will become editors and join, and that would include more women,” Malik said.

He, too, believes that making Wikipedia a more equitable encyclopedia begins with recruiting editors to work toward leveling the playing field. At the end of the day, the wiki is written by everyday people, which means it’s in our hands to write a history that accurately reflects the contributions of women and men.