In our cyber-connected modern world, many people search the internet via smartphones as a first step when learning about new topics. Wikipedia, in particular, is a “go to” source of information and is the fifth most popular website in the world, racking up millions of views per day. Given Wikipedia’s ubiquity as an information source, the quality and scope of information provided on the platform has the power to shape our collective understanding of the world around us.
Wikipedia’s volunteer editors tackle the behemoth task of curating the information added to the site by the public, including decisions about which contributed pages or paragraphs are “notable” and should be maintained and which pages should be deleted. In recent years, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) has been asking vital research questions about the influence of editor diversity (the vast majority [~85%] of Wikipedia editors are male) on the breadth of content available on the site.
Several studies have found that Wikipedia content skews towards topics of traditional/stereotypical interest to males (e.g. sports teams, video games, military history), likely reflecting the interests of the pool of editors. In response, WMF has launched campaigns to recruit and train a more diverse pool of “Wikipedians” and have made an effort to ensure editorial guidelines and policies are gender neutral. There has been steady improvement, but there is still a long way to go…
Klein and Konieczny (2018) recently published an analysis of the ratio of biographies of women and non-binary-gendered notable individuals to the total number of Wikipedia biographies (called the Wikidata Human Gender Indicator [WHGI]) across different cultures. Around the world, biographies of women are underrepresented on Wikipedia though the balance is shifting toward parity (expected in February 2034 given their analysis of ~2014 WHGI data...sixteen more years to go?!).
The lack of diversity in Wikipedia biographies of notable individuals extends to women in STEM. Ongoing lack of representation in the largest, most frequently accessed body of knowledge in the world contributes to the silencing of our voices.
“According to Wikipedia, being a notable person is less about to life expectancy, somewhat more about education and economic status, and even more about positions of power.” - Klein and Konieczny, 2018
To help change cultural perceptions of who can contribute to STEM and to inspire the next generation of young scientists and engineers, it is essential that open access platforms, especially Wikipedia, offer a realistic perspective on the diversity of people already working to tackle big global challenges and historical contributions by underrepresented groups. Let’s speed up the process… sixteen more years to achieve gender parity on notable biographies is too long!
What can women and allies in STEM do to accelerate the improvement of Wikipedia as an inclusive, fact-based resource for the global community?
- Brainstorm a list of the notable academics in your own research community and check to see if a Wikipedia page exists for those individuals, as well as whether they meet the platform guidelines for notability.
- Using your list of potentially notable biographies:
- Incorporate a “wiki writing” assignment into existing courses or work with humanities colleagues to develop new, interdisciplinary courses that highlight the diversity of STEM scientists.
- Organize an “editathon” event that brings together students and colleagues to add or improve Wikipedia pages on notable STEM professionals from underrepresented backgrounds.
- Start a Wikipedia page for a person in your discipline who you know of, but have never met or have had only limited interactions (limits potential conflict of interest).
- Contribute related open access content to Wikimedia Commons (e.g. articles, photos, illustrations, drawings, videos) in your topic area of expertise.
For inspiration, keep an eye on these collective and heroic individual efforts to improve Wikipedia’s content:
- Jess Wade (Twitter - @jesswade)
- “Academic writes 270 Wikipedia pages in a year to get female scientists noticed” by Hannah Devlin, The Guardian, July 24, 2018
- “A physicist is writing one Wikipedia entry a day to recognize women in science” by Christina Zdanowicz, CNN, July 27, 2018
- Maryam Zaringhalam (Twitter - @webmz_)
- “Yes, Being a Woman in Science Is Hard. That’s Why We’re Trying to Change It: The focus on the stats means we sometimes ignore the work those underrepresented people are doing to change things.” By Maryam Zaringham, Slate, April 6, 2018
- Rebecca Barnes (Twitter - @waterbarnes) Colorado College Women in STEM Wikipedia Biographies Project
- WikiProject Women Scientists
- WikiProject Women in Red
In addition to educating the public and inspiring young scholars, highlighting the work of diverse STEM professionals currently active in teaching and research on Wikipedia may help to improve the diversity of:
- invited speakers at professional meetings (avoid the dreaded “manel”!... in addition to Wikipedia, check out the 500 Women Scientists database)
- prestigious awardees (Nobel prizes, national academies)
- participants in high level government advisory bodies and review panels
- recruitment of STEM women to leadership roles in academia (chairs, directors, deans, chancellors, presidents) and industry (C-suite, VCs, board chairs)
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