We’re one year shy of celebrating the centennial anniversary of voting rights for women in the UK. In the past 99 years, significant steps have been taken to bring men and women towards a state of greater equality. But despite all the steps forward, there have also been a few back (hello, Trump), and we have a long way to go.
The reality is that, for all the sustained and meaningful efforts of so many, gender bias remains very real today. And like most things in 2017, this bias, in its many guises, plays out pretty well on the internet.
Enter Wikipedia: the internet’s largest source of free information. An egalitarian platform edited and controlled by its users, it is a veritable research mecca for university students, curious Joes and (shhh) politicians and journalists alike.
It is also deeply, deeply biased towards men – specifically white, Western men – with fewer than 16% female editors and contributors.
Now, Wikipedia is “the largest and most popular general reference work on the internet”, with more than 40 million articles in more than 250 different languages (source: Wikipedia, of course). The English Wikipedia is the biggest, with almost 5.5 million articles and more than 30 million users. It is quoted, referenced and often directly lifted (without source acknowledgement) in news and features, both online and in print.
So consider for a moment the fact that 84% of the people writing this information are men.
When we go to Wikipedia for information, ideas or knowledge, we quite possibly (or probably) don’t even notice the bias. We don’t notice that there are more articles written about men, nor that these articles, as well as articles about subjects traditionally considered ‘of more interest’ to men, are more detailed, more extensive. (Try searching ‘lists of female scientists’ followed by ‘lists of pornographic actresses’ and you’ll see what I mean.)
The consequences of this particular strand of gender bias are far-reaching and dangerous in their imperceptibility. It is ingrained bias such as this that makes equality a seemingly unobtainable goal.
The gender gap on Wikipedia was first brought to the public’s attention in 2011, following a survey conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s owners) and a subsequent article in The New York Times. The Wikimedia Foundation then announced their goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25% by 2015.
It didn't work. In fact, in 2014, Wikipedia’s cofounder Jimmy Wales admitted that they had “completely failed” to fix the platform’s gender imbalance. For a number of reasons – many of which are offered up here by Sue Gardner, ex-executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation – fighting the gap is proving difficult. And while Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation have taken measures to help, top-down initiatives don’t quite seem to work.
Which is where grassroots organisations come in. Last month saw the fourth annual Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. More than 200 events were held across the globe, with in excess of 2,500 participants working to improve existing content on women in art. As well as encouraging more women to join the site themselves as editors, 6,500 female artists now have new or expanded Wikipedia entries.
In December last year, BBC 100 Women launched a one-day edit-a-thon after discovering some “startling” statistics. “In the developing world nearly 25% fewer women than men have access to the internet, and recent figures show women are 27 times more likely to be abused online,” explains editor Fiona Crack. “As an organisation dedicated to improving the visibility of women across the globe we wanted to do something to draw attention to this imbalance.” The initiative saw the highest number of entries about women added to Wikipedia in a single event, with more than 400 new or updated profiles.
The aim of Art+Feminism, set out by its cofounders – Siân Evans, Jacqueline Mabey, McKensie Mack and Michael Mandiberg – is to “create space for a larger conversation about representation, both in the art world and online.” Wikipedia is the fifth most-visited site on the internet, so it’s a good place to start.
Indeed, as McKensie says: “Because of its Creative Commons licensing, content moves beyond the pages of Wikipedia. Google search pulls its biographical sidebar information from Wikipedia, MoMA’s website pulls the article lead for artist’s bios. Absences on Wikipedia echo across the internet.”
“Imagine if a young person's first port of call for research presented lots of women?” asks Crack. “Suddenly these women enter school projects, class presentations, and you potentially start a chain reaction.”
But it’s not only about visibility and the coverage of women’s issues. “We wanted to show women globally that Wikipedia was theirs to edit, too,” explains Crack. “It’s empowering for women to be part of a change.”
A quick survey of 10 of my female friends – all of whom I would call whip-smart – reveals that not one of them has meaningfully created or edited a Wikipedia article. And nor have I. (Except once in my early 20s, as a joke with friends, while drunk, and it was swiftly removed.)
WikiProject Women is a collaborative project that works on a more permanent, year-round editing basis. A collective of men and women from across the globe, its stated aim is to improve coverage of women on the platform. As well as encouraging new female editors to join, the team has created the Women in Red initiative, the objective of which is to turn "red links" (i.e. with no linked content or information) into blue links. There is also the Gender Gap Task Force, WikiDonne, WikiProject Gender Studies and Women’s History, plus a host of other subject-specific WikiProjects dedicated to narrowing the gap.
Of course, what we see on Wikipedia is simply an online reflection of systemic societal issues surrounding gender. And this is not new. “It is now clear that until recently most accounts of women in biographies and historical works are related to the achievements of their husbands or other male relationships,” says Ian Pigott from WikiProject Women. “The fact that many of the most popular sectors of Wikipedia are centred on mainly male achievements (military history, computer science, business) continues to encourage the creation of far more biographies about men than about women.”
“Children learn from Wikipedia,” says Roger Bamkin, also from WikiProject Women. “Girls (and boys) 'learn' that notable people are blokes. We can minimise that. The problem is too huge to be fixed by the 13-23% of women editors. Rosie [cofounder of WikiProject Women] and I agreed that we needed help. It wasn't important where the help was, what language they spoke or what gender they were. Women in Red asks everyone to help... even blokes.”
So the next time you have 10 minutes to spare, consider pressing that edit button. “You’re contributing if you correct spelling, too, so change mistakes as you see them,” says Crack. “Start new articles that don't exist. Get your friends around to do it together. Translate something that's missing in another language. Run your own edit-a-thons.”
I know I will.