Since its inception in 2001, online encyclopedia Wikipedia has become the fifth-most visited website in the world. Its egalitarian, open-source mode of operation would seem to facilitate democratic and even-handed writing and editing practices—as well as collaborative interactions between users. However, a lengthy report by Eileen Guo for Inverse reveals the website’s insidious gender biases. The report cites an independent study that found the website’s biographies on women were more likely than those of men to have information on their personal lives versus professional careers. Pages about women were also more likely to include negative descriptions than those of men.
Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, the 2016 “Wikipedian of the Year” and co-founder of the WikiProject Women in Red added that women’s biography pages are less likely to include photos than those of men and, if photos are included, more likely to show the woman with a male partner than alone. In addition, women’s pages are also more likely to link to men than vice versa. Inverse cites the omission of a link to Theresa May in Wikipedia’s page on Brexit as a glaring example of this bias.
The sexism of Wikipedia has been reported on sporadically since 2011, when the New York Times published two pieces addressing the issue, one on the website’s drastic predominance of male versus female editors and another on the possible reasons for it. In 2013, an op-ed contributor for the Times discovered that women on Wikipedia’s list of American novelists had been removed and added to a subdivision exclusively for female American novelists. In 2015, The Atlantic reported on this gender disparity, as well as the online harassment female Wikipedia editors have experienced from their male counterparts. The same year, The Guardian published an article on a number of male Wikipedia editors’ vote to ban a group of female editors from articles on gender and sexuality. In 2017, both Refinery29 and ABC News addressed Wikipedia’s gender imbalance.
It seems that the lack of women on Wikipedia—both as subjects and editors—can be attributed to a vicious cycle resulting from the website’s male-dominated mindset: when women editors suggest changes or additions to articles, male editors often argue with them in user comment threads, creating a hostile environment in which female voices are minimized. Thus, women are deterred from using Wikipedia in the first place. The overwhelming predominance of male editors then continue writing about subjects they relate to—in other words, other men. Wikipedia’s very own page on its gender bias states that only 8.5-16% of the website’s editors are female, a disparity that undoubtably skews its content. The scant changes and additions that female Wikipedia editors do make—most often on already-overlooked articles about women—are likely to be reverted or deleted by the website’s collectively male-dominated user base.
Groups like Art + Feminism are working to fix Wikipedia’s gender imbalance with female-focused “edit-a-thons.” Every March, to coincide with International Women’s Day, the non-profit works with partners to organize more than 280 events on six continents to encourage women editors on Wikipedia. (There is sure to be a host of editing events on this year’s International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2018.)
The Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees the operation of Wikipedia, employs the Gender Gap Task force to help remedy the lack of female Wikipedia editors. However, it’s unclear how effective this effort has been.