Every system has its biases, and Wikipedia is no exception. A common criticism of Wikipedia is its male bias. Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, agreed with the criticism after it conducted a 2011 survey indicating that up to 90% of editors identified as male. This is a problem for a non-profit organization whose mission is “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content … and to disseminate it effectively and globally.”
The mechanisms for the gender bias are various, complex, and the subject of several studies, recently summarized by two New York researchers. They may include the code-heavy interface, called wiki markup, that contributors initially had to use to edit articles. To the extent that wiki markup operated to inhibit female editors, the technical hurdle has largely disappeared: since April 2015, Wikipedia’s VisualEditor is available by default on the Article pages (but not the Talk pages) for about three-quarters of the language editions of Wikipedias. A more troubling and persistent concern may be Wikipedia’s sometimes hostile user culture, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post. In response to these concerns, there has been a series of efforts to increase female editorship. These include edit-a-thons, some organized by Wikimedia Foundation and some independently, to increase coverage of women’s topics in Wikipedia and to encourage more women to edit it. An example is the worldwide Art+Feminism edit-a-thon, the third of which was held last year to coincide with International Women’s Day. Events took place in nine locations across Canada, including Saskatoon, where editors focused on Saskatchewan and Indigenous women artists including Ruth Cuthand, Mary Longman, and Michelle LaVallee. Similar events are planned for the US, Canada and Europe in March 2017.
Educators and their students can help address the bias. In 2012, students in Alana Cattapan’s fourth-year seminar, “The Politics of the Canadian Women’s Movement,” edited, updated, and expanded various Wikipedia articles, including “Feminism in Canada.” Though often serving as a first point of reference on Canadian feminism, this Wikipedia page was underdeveloped, and Cattapan drew on her students to set about correcting this gateway article and other related ones. Librarians have also been active. In September 2016, to celebrate Science Literacy Week, Concordia University Library partnered with McGill Library to host a Women in Science Wikipedia event. The librarians gave a tutorial on how to edit Wikipedia, followed by an editing session in which participants got one-on-one help.
If you’re thinking of wading into the field and wondering where to start, you might want to look at WikiProject Women in Red. The goal of this project is to turn “red links”—internal links that lead to Wikipedia pages that don’t exist—into “blue links”—internal links that lead to actual Wikipedia articles. (More on this later.) Or if you’d rather start by having your students edit existing material, check out the contrapuntally-named Wikiproject Women in Green, an attempt to bring articles on women up to minimum “Good article” status. The project even provides a “Hot 99” list of women’s biographies to get you started—ranging from Aisha to Natalie Wood.
John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.