Stopping Sex Bias on Wikipedia

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Scientist Katie Bouman captures historic image of a black hole.

Newsflash: Sex discrimination is systemic on English Wikipedia.

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 roughly 90% of all English language volunteer editors.
  • This daunting data is publicly available from Wikipedia and the Wikidata Human Gender Indicator.

Despite this perennial problem, the popular online encyclopedia continues to marginalize women—arguably with a reckless indifference by Wikipedia to women’s history and accomplishments. This conclusion is not theoretical but unequivocal.

In addition to statistics, the harsh reality of gender bias on Wikipedia is based on numerous academic studies and anecdotal evidence.

Wikipedia’s brand appears more reflective of 1920s paternalism than 21st century modernism.

Gender Imbalance

Perhaps you’ve heard of distinguished science professor Donna Strickland. She was approved for a Wikipedia page only after winning the coveted Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018.

Prior to that, Wikipedia deemed her unworthy of recognition. But Strickland’s example is commonplace, rather than the exception.

Earlier this month, the new Wikipedia bio of computer scientist Katie Bouman (pictured above) was proposed for deletion by officious male editors. Bouman was part of a global team of scientists who captured the first-ever photo of a black hole. She was instrumental in designing the complex algorithm which made the historic discovery possible.

The cases of Bouman and Strickland are emblematic of a gaping gender disparity for women on Wikipedia. Nevertheless, male editors and administrators I interviewed argue that sex bias on Wikipedia is merely a microcosm of history and societal norms.

Here’s what we know for certain:

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

But you wouldn’t know these facts based on the gender imbalance of information from male dominated English language Wikipedia.

Women in Red

The good news is that Wikipedia is making incremental progress to narrow the gender divide. The bad news is that progress is occurring at a glacial pace. 

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The Women in Red (WiR) project was launched to proactively feature more notable women throughout history on Wikipedia.

One tool of choice to effectuate greater gender parity on Wikipedia is called an edit-a-thon. WiR and universities worldwide promote these events in which people gather to draft Wikipedia bios about distinguished women and related issues.

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight is an American Wikipedia editor and co-founder of WiR. She told me the following:

  • “Donna Strickland and Katie Bouman are recent examples of gender inequity issues we deal with on Wikipedia every day.”
  • “If Strickland had been a 59-year old man instead of a 59-year old woman, maybe her Wikipedia article would have moved out of draft space and into Wikipedia before she was awarded the Nobel Prize.”

“If Bouman had been a 59-year old man instead of a 29-year old woman, maybe her Wikipedia biography would not have been nominated for deletion just hours after it was created.”

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, co-founder of Women in Red

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 lack of information about women’s history and related page topics on Wikipedia. This has allowed a male centric narrative of history to spread online and off. 

Wikipedia also has a monopoly on Google search engine results. The vast majority of internet searches worldwide are conducted on Google — and Wikipedia pages receive priority placement.

This means Wikipedia has an airtight lock on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a significant social media metric for companies and marketers.   

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Beyond business, sex discrimination on Wikipedia is troubling for the cause of women’s rights, equality and diversity generally.

Sexism on English Wikipedia paints a tainted picture of women’s historical accomplishments, societal contributions and workforce representation in America.

Is Wikipedia mired in the “Middle Ages” or part of today’s 21st century Information Age? The jury is still out…

Final Thoughts

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 and, therefore, reflected on its pages.

But these are lame excuses for perpetuating gender discrimination against prominent women throughout history.

That’s why Women in Red are actively recruiting more people to join their cause. You can learn more online at:

“Be bold and commit to something,” urges Stephenson-Goodknight.

“Join us at in-person events and edit-a-thons around the world. We welcome you!”

Call to Action: As Women in Red makes clear, the time for action is now…what are YOU waiting for?

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The author is a former career spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and current advisory board member and contributor to American Diversity Report.





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