Wikipedia Is Sexist, But We're Trying To Fix It
There are 1.7 million biographies on Wikipedia, however only about 18 percent of them are on women.
This is only 296,000 profiles. If you focus in on women working in the scientific disciplines, that number dramatically drops to less than 9,000 articles. Narrow it down again and only 260 articles are for Australian female scientists. The number is even lower for women representing diverse backgrounds, like women of colour.
I have spent my career committed to supporting women pursuing careers across the health and medical research sector, and I know for certain this number should be higher. I have the privilege of meeting many women whose contributions to science and society deserve to be acknowledged on the world’s most accessed encyclopaedia.
Why does gender bias matter?
When people search for information online, Wikipedia entries are often the first results to appear. If articles on women and their contributions are missing it skews perception of the role women have in shaping our society. In the science sector, we want to maintain a factual record of history, but more importantly, encourage young girls to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine. After all, you cannot be what you cannot see.
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How does bias on Wikipedia happen?
Wikipedia is a completely crowd-sourced encyclopaedia with its content added and reviewed by a network of close to 150,000 volunteer editors. The content that you read is based on a consensus decision among editors, and is continually evolving.
The vast majority of Wikipedia editors are Anglo-Saxon men living in North America, which influences decisions on what content stays and how it is presented.
Content is also influenced by Wikipedia’s criteria to determine who is ‘notable’ enough for a dedicated page. Women are still under-represented among leadership positions, professional awards recipients, the media, and acceptance into prestigious scientific Academies. All of which are considered as sources that demonstrate notability for a person to receive a Wikipedia article.
For example, when a Wikipedia page was created for Canadian physicist Donna Strickland, it was quickly denied by a site moderator. She was not deemed notable enough for a dedicated article. Strickland went on to win the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, and was then granted a Wikipedia page. But why did she need a Nobel Prize for this to happen?
What we can do about it?
While I’ve learned a lot about online gender bias, I’ve also learned how we can all play our part to help to reduce it.
Wikipedia Edit-a-thons are an exciting global movement working to close the content gap for under-represented groups like women, people of colour, and the LGBTIQ+ community. They are grass roots events, which have been held across the UK, USA and Canada, where groups get together to collectively edit and update Wikipedia entries to give recognition to those who deserve it.
A recent Australian Edit-a-thon saw 40 women working in the health, medical and life sciences sector take to their keyboards to increase the visibility of female scientists on Wikipedia. During the event, 21 brand new Wikipedia profiles about Australian female scientists were created. This is a big step, considering only 245 existed beforehand. The group also edited 35 existing articles to improve their quality and currency. Collectively, more than 20,000 words of notability were added to Wikipedia for Australian women working in the sector.
The impact that 40 women with laptops had in one afternoon is humbling and motivating. We now have more female scientists receiving the visibility they deserve and more women skilled as Wikipedia editors. Events like this also serve to help spark a national conversation on the value of grass roots Wikipedia Edit-a-thons in addressing gender bias online.
If you want to do your part to make the Internet a better place, you can:
- Talk with your friends and colleagues about the gender bias online
- Nominate your female colleagues for awards, committees or other professional accolades
- Sign-up to take part in a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon
- Host your own Edit-a-thon
For more information about Wikipedia Edit-a-thons for Women in Health and Medical Research, visit Franklin Women.