Waging War on the Wiki Gender Gap

As part of our International Women’s Day series of blog posts our Senior Librarian Manager Louise Birch chatted with Curator Lucy Moore of Leeds Museums & Galleries about the gender imbalance of Wikipedia, the nature of who should be creating content, existing barriers and specifically the Wikiproject Women in Red, a project addressing the gender imbalance.

First some Wikipedia background: the gender imbalance refers to the number of biographical Wikipedia articles based on women. In October 2014 only 15.53% of all Wikipedia biographies were about women so, in July 2015, the Wikiproject Women in Red was founded with the aim of “Reducing systematic bias in the wiki movement”.

By January 2021 the percentage had risen to 18.72%.

Whilst working on the WWI anniversary exhibition for Leeds Museums, Lucy’s awareness of Wikipedia’s informational voids was raised. Important information about WWI Leeds was missing and some pages appeared biased.  The annoyance these issues caused Lucy were the catalyst for learning to edit Wikipedia with the aim of helping put Leeds WWI history onto the site.

The Leeds Pals by Leeds Museums & Galleries 2018

In early 2019 the West Yorkshire Queer Stories project along with the Leeds Central Library Local & Family History department ran a ‘Wiki-Workshop’. Ross from WYQS and Antony from the Central Library took participants through the process of how to edit a Wikipedia article; their aim was similar to that of ‘Women in Red’, but the systematic bias being addressed on that occasion was towards the LGBT+ community. After making her first few edits Lucy struggled to go further once away from the workshop – the lack of support for new emerging editors makes it common for people to struggle at this beginner point.

Taking what she’d learned from Ross and Antony, Lucy ran her own workshop for staff of Leeds Museums & Galleries, showing colleagues how to create pages for their buildings and collections. The page for the Leeds Discovery Centre was set up three times, each time getting deleted by existing editors who didn’t realise Lucy was a new editor. Instead of offering guidance they berated her for what she didn’t know, including not declaring other interests as a Museum employee.

Leeds Museum Discovery Centre – Carlisle Road

“These ‘Who do you think you are’ negative attitudes from existing editors brought out my stubborn streak and I refused to quit.”

While these negative responses spurred a determined Lucy on, it does raise the question – how many women have been put off by a host of disapproving information gate keepers?

The good news is that in the last two years huge work has been undertaken within the Wiki movement to address these attitudes. The aggressiveness towards new editors is being replaced with a more welcoming approach and a new code of conduct asks existing editors to be friendly.

This has resulted in the representation of traditionally discriminated backgrounds growing and minority interests being written about more.  And while quantifying data is lacking, it does appear that more women are editing and more men are uploading articles reflecting equality.

Why is it important to have women represented equally on Wikipedia?

Wikipedia as a worldwide information source is by default a reflection of society, with 90% of editors declaring themselves male and only 10% female. The information published has, as a result, reflected male interests – in Lucy’s own words “men don’t write about periods”.

With pages now published for Leeds Museums & Galleries and The Discovery Centre Lucy began to look for her next wiki project. First she continued growing the Leeds WWI content but it wasn’t long before she realised the huge issues Wikipedia has with representation and the gender gap.  Here, Lucy was pointed in the direction of the ‘Women in Red’ project, who she describes as having a really nice, welcoming community.  What started for Lucy as a desire to make a local difference was fast gaining a global focus.

Gender x Race = Information gap

As her Wikipedia repertoire grew, Lucy became more interested in the stories of women across the world.

“White western women usually have records about them, buried but not undiscoverable. But when you get to places where English is not the dominant language or the community are living with a legacy of colonialism, telling women’s stories gets progressively more difficult.”

Couple this with restrictions around verifying reference resources and much information is being lost.  Wikipedia does not allow Facebook as a verifiable resource, so if the only platform your historical organisation has to host the story of women in your community is on that site, such valuable information is excluded from the Wiki world.  There is still much work to be done redefining which sources are considered valid for Wikipedia – de-imperialising source value, in other words.

Google Translate has become an invaluable resource for armchair wiki-editors as it opens up resources in multiple languages – but here, again, we see bias embedded in a software which defaults to masculine pronouns, continually replacing ‘she’ with ‘he’.

The telling of female stories from one heritage or culture by people of another heritage or culture is a controversial one.  Who has the right to tell the stories of marginalised women?  Should pages not be created until the ‘right’ person does it or is it better that the page is created for anyone to contribute to rather than the information remain buried? Due to the nervousness of existing editors many avoid posting about cultures outside of their own for fear of mishandling a story and the language around it.

Lucy experienced this for herself when she started a page for Julia Chinn, an enslaved black woman and the common-law wife and mother of two children to Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice-president of the United States.  Julia’s story shows a woman who ran an estate, controlled a budget and managed the estate slaves all while Johnson was away in Washington. 

“Usually I start a page and once it goes live people begin to engage by adding extra information, correcting spelling errors, that sort of thing. This time I had people denying the existence of slavery and objecting to the calling Julia his ‘wife’ because how could an enslaved woman with no power consent to a relationship?”

From this Lucy learned not just how important it is to use the correct language when telling a woman’s story but that some of the stories we tell will provoke visceral reactions in people, especially those involving trauma.

The creation of Julia’s page on Wikipedia makes her story more accessible but Lucy was keen to acknowledge that even in telling Julia’s story we are still working within a biased framework. Lucy’s resources were mostly 19th century and secondary: nothing original from Julia – no diaries, letters or notes from the subject herself. Immediately, then, her story is being told from the perspective of others.

Caricature of Julia Chinn, which over-emphasises her African heritage – excerpted from ‘An affecting scene in Kentucky’ – Wikipedia

Lucy continually questions whether or not she is the right person to tell these women’s stories: while, as a museum curator trained to research and interpret moments in history, you could argue that, yes, she is an expert in this, Lucy does still wonder:

“As a product of White British Colonialism, am I guided in a particular direction and compounding the problem even further.” 

Is it ever right for someone not from a particular community to write someone else’s story?

These are big questions and when writing a book getting them wrong can carry harmful consequences. The nature of Wiki information, however, is that it can be edited time and again.  A page created by Lucy or any other editor, in good-faith, can be easily amended by a community for cultural errors so easily. As Lucy says:

“A good editor starts something off for people to read and add to”.

In the last three years Lucy has created over 225 Wikipedia articles and contributed to various others. When I asked who her favourite woman to research and write about was, she recalled Emanuela Nohejlová-Prátová, “a Czech numismatist, archaeologist and historian.  She is considered to be a founder of modern Czech numismatics”.

How to get started as a Wiki editor

Lucy recommends going to an event either in person or digitally: Wikithons and Wiki-Workshops will introduce you to the vocabulary and principles of editing. 

Equipment needed

First you will need to set up an account on Wikipedia, there are tutorials on the site that show you how.

Wikipedia is set up to work from a laptop and keyboard and while it’s not impossible to create pages on a mobile or tablet, it’s not easy either.  Without a computer Lucy recommends downloading the Wikipedia app and beginning with making little edits by adding information to existing pages.

Wikipedia has a section to explain how to do this and even makes suggestions for places to start that will help familiarise you with the process like adding captions to pictures, reading articles and writing the recap section for the top of the page.  If you have a laptop or home computer there are various online tutorials and Youtube videos of Wikithon events you can follow along with, pausing when needed.

Lucy’s tips for getting started

Wikipedia is vast: you will never learn all of its functions so don’t wait until you have before you begin, just focus on one area at a time and, when you learn that, move onto the next.

Set aside an hour or two a week and make this your editing time.  But be careful! As Lucy herself has found, “Wiki editing can be addictive”

Write about what interests you, the more engaged you are with the topic the easier you will find it to contribute.  Join a wiki project like ‘Women in Red’ and keep at it: if your interest is in women writers then add to their pages, research reputable reviews of their works and add them to the ‘reception’ tab on their individual pages.

How you construct a page can help others to read and think critically, helping people who were never taught critical thinking how to assess a subject from multiple perspectives.  The English Wikipedia is the most read version globally, but thanks to online translation tools, it is being read everywhere and in multiple languages.

“Wiki articles are at their strongest when written in good faith and edited by multiple voices, that’s when they become well-rounded articles, with the idea of neutrality at the forefront of their minds”

Lucy Moore

Some of Lucy’s favourite articles to create include:

  • Queens of Industry – a result of an exhibition at the Industrial Museum, by publishing on Wikipedia items in the museum catalogue become reference-able to all.
  • This page on Leeds First Black Councillor Cedric Clarke was a result of a blog post created right here on the Secret Library Leeds blog.  While most blogs are not considered trustworthy by Wikipedia ‘official organisational ones’ are so our library generated knowledge and research is now, thanks to Lucy, available to the Wikipedia audience.
  • And finally, the West Yorkshire Hoard, because something of such international significance really does need its own page.

Want to join in?

Wiki editing isn’t for everyone so Lucy recommends The World According to Wikipedia podcast for learning more about it.

And if you really want to edit but want some help please get in touch with us at localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk or on 0113 37 86982. If we have enough interest, we can put on more workshops to help get you started.

*The original version of this article stated Lucy had written over 125 wiki articles, while this is technically correct it underplays the fact that Lucy has in fact written over 225 wiki article, my apologies for the error.

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