Jade Burroughes and George Glover report on Wikipedia’s poor representation of women in science
Wikipedia prides itself on being an unbiased source of information and is widely known to offer an apparently neutral point of view. In this digital age, the encyclopaedia site operates as the go-to source for information, offering a snappy knowledge fix for anyone from a child looking for homework help to a lazy undergraduate struggling to meet an essay deadline. But what is less well-known is that this platform, fast becoming the most obvious pillar of modern historical record, is one of the biggest culprits of gender bias and an active example of women being consciously omitted or half-heartedly represented within history, science and current affairs.
Canadian physicist Donna Strickland is one of many women who have experienced the brunt of Wikipedia’s misogyny. Strickland, the first female winner of the Nobel Physics Prize in 55 years, found her request for her own Wikipedia page rejected back in March. While Gerard Mourou, with whom Strickland shared the 2018 prize, has held an active Wikipedia page since 2005, The Guardian reports that Strickland wasn’t considered significant enough to warrant her own page until an hour and a half after she was presented with the award. Strickland stands as a prime insight into the double standard of newsworthy representation on Wikipedia and more widely the marginalisation of female scientists in favour of their male peers. There exists a well acknowledged gender disparity in the STEM world, an issue that becomes even more distressing when considering the role of platforms like Wikipedia, meaning that when women do succeed, they often do not receive sufficient recognition for their achievements.
In the past few years, there has been much research into Wikipedia’s gender bias. Many have cited the uniformity of Wikipedia’s user base as the core problem, with the vast majority of its editors being young, college-educated males. In fact, Wikipedia’s own recent Editor Survey research revealed that just 16% of editors are women. Furthermore, there is an alarming lack of extensive articles on women; only 17% of the Wikipedia pages categorised as ‘notable people’ are profiles of women. Radio 4 host, QI presenter and founder of the Women’s Equality Party, Sandi Toksvig has spoken enlighteningly on this disparity. In an episode of Jessie Ware’s Table Manners podcast, she expressed severe concern for the ‘overwhelmingly male’ content forming the bulk of the modern day historical record on platforms such as Wikipedia. Toksvig attributes the gender disparity of Wikipedia content to differing standards applied to the genders, arguing that the criteria for a man to be considered as ‘noteworthy’ is remarkably lax compared to the highly selective process that notable women are subjected to in order to make the cut. Additionally, there have been concerning reports of sexism within Wikipedia’s work place, with the few active editors who do publicly identify as women facing sexual harassment. This was especially apparent in 2015 when, in an article for The Atlantic, Emma Paling recorded the experience of one female Wikipedia employee who had her name falsely attached to pornographic material by a male co-worker.
So, is there hope for a drastic setting straight of the Wikipedia record? Toksvig remains optimistic, and that optimism is not unfounded. Throughout 2018, campaigner Dr Jess Wade and her colleagues have taken to the internet to try to rectify Wikipedia’s gender bias, writing more than 270 entries about forgotten influential women in science, such as Susan Goldberg, the first female editor of National Geographic. As well as this, Wade has recently launched a campaign for every state school to be given a copy of Angela Saini’s Inferior, a book investigating biology’s ferocious gender wars and debunking myths about female psychology; Wade hopes that this will enable young girls to educate themselves about the structural barriers facing them. In time, we can hope that the initiatives of Toksvig and Wade will aid the erosion of Wikipedia’s gender bias, enabling the site to finally tell a more full and impartial history of the efforts of female scientists.