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24th April 2023

Women on Wikipedia: Is your favourite encyclopaedia gender biased?

Dr Jessica Wade works behind the scenes on Wikipedia to try to amplify scientific achievements which go unheard of against the big names in science.
Women on Wikipedia: Is your favourite encyclopaedia gender biased?
Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario @ Wikimedia Commons

Dr Jessica Wade is a physicist currently working as a research fellow at Imperial College London. Her work involves considering new materials for optoelectronic devices, which are devices that find, detect, and control light. 

A distinguished scientist, Wade has received many awards throughout her career, including the Daphne Jackson Award, which recognises early career contributions to physics education, as well as the Julia Higgins Medal, which celebrates the support of women in academia at Imperial College London.  The accolade that first piqued my interest in Wade, however, was her honourable mention for the ‘Wikipedian of the Year’ award.

I recently interviewed Wade about how the work she does on Wikipedia is changing the way the story of science is told. After spending the first five minutes discussing mutual connections and helping to come up with ideas to help me further my career, we focus on the matter at hand.

Publishing untold stories

Behind the scenes on Wikipedia, Wade works to recognise the success of female scientists whose voices and contributions have been left unheard over those of famous men we know perhaps too much about. We all know about Newton and the apple, but how many know that Vera Rubin proved the existence of Dark Matter in the universe?

Of over 1.5 million biographies published on Wikipedia, only 19% of these are about women. When an article is drafted about women in science, it is much more likely to be deleted than that of a man.

Wade explains that in her opinion, there are two main factors which lead to the deletion of biographies. One is as Wade fondly describes, a “newbie editor”. These editors – who may be keener to write articles that buck the status quo – are just starting their trek into Wikipedia’s wilderness, and don’t always yet know the most efficient route to publication. The other is the notability of their subjects – a scientist may be perceived to have not achieved enough to warrant a biography. It is in this area that the bar appears to be higher for women.

In Ms. Categorized: Gender, notability, and inequality on Wikipedia, social scientist Francesca Tripodi writes about the continuous battle editors wage against the apparently biased deletion of female biographies. Tripodi notes that one such article about scientist Dr Strickland was flagged for ‘speedy deletion’ within six minutes of its publication, which was removed shortly afterwards. Four years later, Tripodi won the Nobel Prize in Physics for achievements which Wikipedia did not deem ‘worthy’ enough to require a biography. 

Wade is trying to help fill in the gaps in the science history. She told me that since her first article in 2017, she has written 1900 Wikipedia pages.

Each of these articles fills in the blanks about scientists who have been underrepresented on Wikipedia, and across the board. As Wade told Sydney Page at The Washington Post  she’s “never sat down and not had someone to write about”.

Editing for equality

In an effort to improve the lack of representation on Wikipedia, ‘edit-a-thons’ have been organised for several years by Wade and others, including her friend Dr Maryan Zaringhalam. A notable ongoing edit-a-thon Wade and Zaringhalam worked together to set up is ‘500 women scientists’ which aims to create 500 articles on female scientists.

Edit-a-thons involve lots of volunteers writing articles about a select amount of underrepresented people at a time. The events are well organised and can gain quite a lot of ground in increasing representation. However, as these volunteers are often new editors, their articles are far more likely to be deleted, due to their lack of experience. Wade explains,  “When you’re a new editor you have to put your page up for review […] once you have written your page in a draft area you submit it for a review, which is reviewed by other volunteers before it goes up. [However] an experienced editor can go through auto approval.”

Once enough of their pages have gone through the usual process, an editor is deemed to be safe to edit and type away to their heart’s content. New editors, however, have to keep an eye on their article and re-edit after it has been reviewed. If they don’t? Another article gets deleted. 

This doesn’t mean edit-a-thons are useless, just that they require even more organisation, with writers being encouraged to monitor their work post-submission. 

Progress is coming

It is reassuring that Wade has been steadily making progress behind the scenes. Edit-a-thons and publicization of the gap in information on Wikipedia has led to the number of biographies of famous women increasing from 15 to 19% over the past decade.

Lots of different edit-a-thons take place, with themes ranging from environmental to art. Wikipedia is often thought of as the font of all knowledge. Hopefully, that will one day be true.

You can learn more about two female Mancunian scientists you may not have heard of before here.

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