Stopping Sex Bias on Wikipedia – By David B. Grinberg

International Women’s Day was March 8. 
Women’s History Month ended March 31. 
Equal Pay Day was April 2.

Yet Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, continues to marginalize women on its English language pages and among its staff. This conclusion is not theoretical but unequivocal. It’s based on academic studies, public statistics and anecdotal evidence.

Wikipedia’s data is daunting, according to the Wikidata Human Gender Indicator.
To wit:

• Less than 18% of 1.6 million English Wikipedia bios are about women, up from 15% in 2014.

• Put another way: of about 1,615,000 bio pages, fewer than 300,000 are about women.

• Meanwhile, men account for about 90% of all English Wikipedia’s volunteer editors.

Wikipedia’s brand image is more reflective of 1920s paternalism than 21st century modernism. The San Francisco-based nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia, has a noble mission: Democratize the free flow of information and knowledge to diverse populations worldwide.

But is English Wikipedia practicing what it preaches?

Gaping Gender Gap

Consider the case of prominent science professor Donna Strickland. She was only approved for a Wikipedia page after winning the coveted Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018.

Prior to that, Wikipedia deemed her career accomplishments unworthy of recognition and rejected her bio. The unfortunate reality is that Strickland’s example is commonplace.

Strickland’s situation is emblematic of systemic sex discrimination evidenced by the gaping gender gap. Wikipedia openly acknowledges this persistent problem. Nevertheless, editors and admins I interviewed argue that Wikipedia’s gender disparity merely resembles history and social norms.

Here’s what we know for certain:

  • Women number almost half the planet’s population.
  • Women are half the USA’s population.
  • Women comprise half the American labor force.
  • Women earn more college degrees than men in the USA.

To its credit, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) has been transparent. However, WMF has not found any solid solutions to remedy gender inequality fast enough – at least compared to the large numbers of women in the U.S. population and labor force.

Male Dominated

Sex bias on Wikipedia is alarming for many reasons. First, it’s the textbook definition of a traditionally male dominated workplace. Second, there’s a disturbing dearth of information about women’s history and related page topics on Wikipedia. Therefore, a male centric narrative of history has spread on the internet like wildfire.

Wikipedia has a monopoly on Google search engine results. The vast majority of internet searches worldwide are conducted on Google.

Wikipedia pages receive priority placement in Google search. This means Wikipedia has an airtight lock on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which is one significant social media metric for companies and marketers. SEO impacts sales and revenue for big brands online and off.

Beyond business, gender discrimination on Wikipedia is troubling for the cause of women’s rights, as well as fostering equality and diversity generally. Sexism on English Wikipedia paints a tainted picture of women’s historical accomplishments, societal contributions and workforce representation in America.

It should be noted that Wikipedia is one of the internet’s top destinations, with tens of millions of weekly visitors. Wikipedia is also an important source of cited online information – a key digital currency in a world where “fake news” is ingrained in popular culture.

This raises a troubling question: Is Wikipedia mired in the “Middle Ages” or the Information Age?

Women in Red

There is some good news. Wikipedia is making incremental progress to narrow the gender disparity, thanks to WMF’s Women in Red project. The bad news points to the glacial pace of progress.

Women in Red is a “WikiProject within that site, focusing effort to create articles about notable women that do not currently exist there,” according to Wikipedia. “The potential for such missing articles can be determined by looking for red hyperlinks in existing Wikipedia articles or templates.”

One tool in the fight for gender equality on Wikipedia is called an edit-a-thon. Perhaps you have participated in one? These are events in which people gather to draft Wikipedia bios featuring distinguished women in history and related women’s topics.

The WMF says, “Edit-a-thons have been held to encourage female editors and increase the coverage of women’s topics.”

You can learn more about getting involved with the Women in Red campaign via www.WomenInRed.org

Although Women in Red deserve accolades for their efforts, it’s questionable whether the goal of closing the gender gap on Wikipedia will occur any time soon, if ever. The prior goal was to have women’s bios account for 25% of Wikipedia content by 2015 (again, the current figure is just under 18%).

Notability Guideline

Another variable of Wikipedia’s gender imbalance revolves around its “notability” policy. This guideline is the framework by which editors determine what content is accepted or rejected.

Wikipedia defines the notability standard as follows:

“Notability is a test used by editors to decide whether a given topic warrants its own article. We consider evidence from reliable and independent sources to gauge this attention. The notability guideline does not determine the content of articles, but only whether the topic should have its own article.”

However, this strict policy appears to have a disparate impact on submissions by and about women.

ADR’s Editor-in-Chief, Deborah J. Levine, observes:

  • “Along with Wikipedia’s growing popularity and high visibility, there should be increased public scrutiny of its male-dominated staff.”
  • “Wikipedia combines the lack of diversity endemic to both the technical and journalism worlds, particularly in decision-making positions.”
  • “With few women in the upper levels of management in these key professions, it’s no wonder that women are only faintly visible on Wikipedia.”

My Take

  • Wikipedia says it deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding women and diversity.
  • Wikipedia says its intentions are noble, despite the colossal gender gap.
  • Wikipedia says that sexism is inherent in history and society.
  • Therefore, based on this argument, the source material upon which Wikipedia relies to approve content is merely a sign of systemic sex bias throughout history to present day.

Here’s the three-pronged crux of my argument:

  1. Wikipedia’s notability policy should be revisited and revised to make it more gender neutral.
  2. Wikipedia needs to recruit, retain and advance more female staff in a more effective, efficient and expeditious way to level the playing field.
  3. Wikipedia needs to double its partnerships with universities worldwide by incentivizing students to hold edit-a-thons for college credit, particularly in academic programs for women’s history, social science and STEM.

It’s simply not enough for Wikipedia to blame history and society for gender inequality, while further perpetuating the problem on its pages and among its staff.

Digital diversity on Wikipedia should mean a balance of contributors, editors and content representing people from all walks of life – regardless of gender, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability or other discriminatory factors.

Anything less is digital delinquency.
Do you agree?
Please share your valuable comments below.

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Author’s Note: A longer version of this article (2,000 words) is also available on Medium at https://medium.com/thrive-global/unraveling-wikipedias-mystery-over-women-s-history-24e863d6735f

Photo Credit: Women’s Media Center http://www.womensmediacenter.com/

David B. Grinberg

David B. Grinberg is a strategic communications consultant and advisory board member for American Diversity Report.His work experience includes two decades of career public service as a national media spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Prior to that, he served as a political appointee for President Bill Clinton in The White House Office of Presidential Personnel and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He also worked in Congress as a press assistant for the Office of the House Majority Leader, as well as a reporter for The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (now Bloomberg BNA) and U. Magazine (Colleges.com). A native New Yorker, David earned a B.S. Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland and resides in the Washington, DC-area.

4 thoughts on “Stopping Sex Bias on Wikipedia – By David B. Grinberg”

  1. A well-researched and extremely well written piece on a topic that is not in the front of most readers’s eyes. Kudos, David

  2. excellent insight ix exquisite @David G. Grinberg! enjoyed read immensely and shared. thank you for the post sir.

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