Creating new role models on Wikipedia to encourage the next generation of #ImmodestWomen
By Siobhan O’Connor, Alice White, Sara Thomas and Ewan McAndrew.
Wikipedia, the free, online, multilingual encyclopaedia is building the largest open knowledge resource in human history. Now aged eighteen years old, its English language version receives over 500 million views per month, from 1.4 billion unique devices, and has over 130,000 active users collaboratively writing and editing millions of articles online. As topics on Wikipedia become more visible on Google, they receive more press coverage and become better known amongst the public.
Yet while English Wikipedia has significant reach and influence as the go-to source of information around the world, it also has significant gaps in its coverage of topics, articles in other languages and the diversity of its editors. Less than 18 per cent of biographies on English Wikipedia are about women, while most editors on the platform are white men.
This disproportionate gap on Wikipedia silences women’s contribution to science which continues their marginalisation in public life, a vicious circle that leads to more women being lost to careers in STEM. This gender imbalance mirrors the 2017 findings of the WISE campaign with women making up just 23% of those in core STEM occupations (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in the UK and 24% of those working in core STEM industries. Only 17% of physicists worldwide are women and studies have shown that it will take approximately 258 years for equality in physics. The rate of progress is even starker for the fields of computer science (280 years) .
Recent research published earlier this year by Asst. Professor Neil C. Thompson at MIT and Asst. Professor Doug Hanley at the University of Pittsburgh has also evidenced that scientific research is actually shaped by Wikipedia; demonstrating the influence of the free encyclopedia.
“Our research shows that scientists are using Wikipedia and that it is influencing how they write about the science that they are doing… Wikipedia isn’t just a record of what’s going on in science, it’s actually helping to shape science.” – Professor Neil C. Thompson
The randomised controlled trial the researchers undertook evidenced a profound causal impact that, as one of the most accessed websites in the world, incorporating ideas into Wikipedia leads to those ideas being used more in the scientific literature.
Chemistry graduates were asked to create forty-three new Wikipedia entries about topics in chemistry, with half being posted on Wikipedia while the rest were held back. Two years later, the chemistry entries created on Wikipedia had collectively over 2 million views. Analysing the text of publications from fifty high-impact chemistry journals during this period, showed words in the publications were influenced by content from the new Wikipedia entries.
For example, the ‘History of Chemistry’ entry on Wikipedia features over 200 men but only mentions 4 women and is missing notable female chemists such as Nobel Prize winning biochemist Gerty Cori and Professor Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and one of the pioneers of a new breakthrough genetic engineering technology called CRISPR.
Another example of the gender imbalance can be seen in the entry for ‘Benzene’ on Wikipedia. There are several paragraphs describing many male scientists who tried to discover the structure of this chemical compound in the 1800’s. However, only one single sentence in the same Wikipedia article acknowledges the female scientist, Kathleen Lonsdale, who finally confirmed the structure of benzene in 1929.
Consequently, the Wikipedia community has established numerous initiatives to address this acknowledged systemic gender bias as they are committed to diversity and inclusivity to ensure knowledge equity. One such initiative, “WikiProject Women in Red (WiR)”, aims to crowdsource turning dormant red links for biography articles that do not yet exist into clickable blue ones which do, directing readers to female biographies and works by women on the platform.
New articles recently created by Women in Red volunteer editors from around the world include: Zheng Pingru, a spy whose life inspired a film; Bridget Jones (academic), a pioneer in the field of Caribbean literature studies; and Paquita Sauquillo, a campaigner in defence of democratic freedom. Entries recently improved by Women in Red editors include: Ruth Schmidt, an award winning American geologist; and Wilma Mankiller, an activist and social worker who was the first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
As a result of targeted Wikipedia editing events, or ‘edit-a-thons’, there are also now entire series of articles for the Edinburgh Seven, the first female students to matriculate at a British university, and the nineteen pioneering women chemists who, in 1904, petitioned the Chemistry Society (later to become the Royal Society of Chemistry) for the admission of women as Fellows of the Society.
“These were a group of extraordinary women who had done chemistry to degree and postgraduate level at a time when you couldn’t do that… and they had extraordinary stories and they did extraordinary chemistry.” – Dr. Michael Seery, Director of Teaching at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry.
Often if articles are not missing entirely, the contributions of women in science are reduced to bit part status as an addendum on the Wikipedia articles of their husbands or male contemporaries. Marie Curie’s Wikipedia article reportedly started out shared with her husband. That was, until someone pointed out that her scientific contributions might just warrant an article of her own. There is also a new article for Scottish physical scientist, Katherine Clerk Maxwell, whose contribution to measurements of gaseous viscosity was recorded by her husband, James, and is associated with his paper “On the Dynamical Theory of Gases”, where he states that Katherine “did all the real work of the kinetic theory” and that she was now “…engaged in other researches. When she is done I will let you know her answer to your inquiry.”
The achievements of extraordinary pioneering women are recorded in various sources, however no one has chosen to write their stories on Wikipedia. Focused attention in themed editing events means more articles are being created all the time.
Surveys have indicated that only 8.5–16% of Wikipedia editors are female. One particular 2011 survey suggested that on English Wikipedia around 91% of editors were male, and typically formally educated, in white-collar jobs (or students) and living in the Global North. The same survey found that fewer than 1% of editors self-identified as transsexual or transgender.
“if there is a typical Wikipedia editor, he has a college degree, is 30- years-old, is computer savvy but not necessarily a programmer, doesn’t actually spend much time playing games, and lives in US or Europe.”
This means that articles within Wikipedia typically reflect these gender, socioeconomic and cultural biases. Among the findings of the 2016 research article, Women through the glass ceiling: gender asymmetries in Wikipedia, were that women in Wikipedia were more notable than men; that there was linguistic gender bias manifest in family-, gender-, and relationship-related topics being more present in biographies about women; and there was also linguistic gender bias in positive terms being used more frequently in the biographies of men while negative terms appeared more frequently in the biographies of women. The authors also found structural differences in terms of the metadata and hyperlinks, which had consequences for information-seeking activities. Wikipedia is only ever as good as the diversity of editors who engage with it, with many articles reflecting the perspective of white male English speakers in the northern hemisphere, and many of the topics covered reflect the interests of this relatively small group of editors. Wikipedia therefore needs a diverse community of editors to bring a range of perspectives and interests that truly represent human knowledge.
Awareness of this systemic gender bias has prompted the development of a tool called the Concept Replacer which simply highlights the gendered nouns and pronouns in the text of an article and temporarily shows you how a biography article of a notable woman would read if it was written instead as a biography for a man (and vice versa). This easy to use tool is useful for editors and article readers alike in order to help identify instances of unconscious bias at a glance. For instance, exposing why the marital status is included in the first lines about some biographies, and not others.
Wikipedia is also a community that operates with certain expectations and social norms in mind. Sometimes new editors can have a less than positive experience when they are not fully aware of this. As mentioned previously, there are over 130,000 regular contributors to Wikipedia. Of these, only 3,541 are considered ‘very active‘. That’s the population of a small village like Pitlochry in Scotland trying to curate the world’s knowledge.
There is a need to increase both the diversity and number of Wikipedia editors. One way to do that is to run ‘edit-a-thons’ and other facilitated activities that introduces some of the norms and expectations of the online platform while at the same time learning how to technically edit Wikipedia pages and create high quality content.
Edit-a-thons have been running globally for a number of years to facilitate the creation of new profiles of women on Wikipedia. For example, the University of Edinburgh has been hosting Women in STEM Wikipedia editathons on the second Tuesday of October for the last four years to mark Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of Women in STEM. The Wellcome Library in London has also run women in science edit-a-thons to build new biographies of prominent female chemists, engineers and nurses on Wikipedia. These events have surfaced the achievements a number of notable women online including: Hilda Lyon, who invented the “Lyon Shape”, a streamlined design used for airships and submarines; structural engineer, Faith Wainwright, director of the Arup Group, who led in the structural design of multiple landmark buildings including the American Air Museum and the Tate Modern; Annie Warren Gill, a British nurse who was awarded the Royal Red Cross in recognition of her service during World War I and served as president of the Royal College of Nursing in 1927; Frances Micklethwait MBE, an English research chemist, among the first to study and seek an antidote to mustard gas during the First World War.
Despite this global campaign and investment to encourage more female editors and the creation of content related specifically to women, progress is slow. Since 2014, WikiProject Women in Red’s volunteer editors regularly help create in the region of 1000-2000 new articles every month. As a result, this has increased the proportion of biographies on women from 15% to 17.83% of the total. It has been estimated that it will take until 2050 or later until gender parity is achieved on Wikipedia.
Tackling this bias online requires collective responsibility. A number of actions at an individual, organisational and national level can be taken to bring about positive change.
“Women in STEM are under-represented and maybe the lack of role models is one reason why. Also biographies of women in STEM on Wikipedia are much fewer than they should be and maybe if we can change that, we can change the way future generations look at science and technology as a career path”
Firstly, those of all genders everywhere could commit time and energy to becoming dedicated Wikipedians, who regularly create female scientific biographies and other content related to women in science. Those who do so tend to benefit from a sense of reciprocity and altruism which results from the direct impact that Wikipedia has worldwide.
For instance, Dr. Jess Wade, a physicist and postdoctoral researcher in electronics at Imperial College London, attended a Wellcome Library editathon and was horrified to learn about the gender gap on Wikipedia.
“The majority of editors are men. The majority of editors are white men. So representation of people of colour, of LGBTQ+ people is really, really bad. So many young people use [Wikipedia] as the sole source of their information. They don’t use textbooks anymore. They go to Wikipedia first when they’re looking something up. And I don’t want that to be an incredibly biased view of the world… you could be looking up some kind of new solar material, you could be looking up a cathedral in Florence [but] the people that you read about will be men. And that really frightened me… So I just thought I’d start off by doing one a day. And yeah it’s really fun.”
This experience motivated her to start creating Wikipedia entries about contemporary female scientists, with over 450 new articles published in the last twelve months. These include Isabel Ellie Knaggs, a crystallographer who worked with Kathleen Lonsdale on the crystal structure of benzil; Noël Bakhtian, director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at Idaho National Laboratory and described as one of the most powerful female engineers in the world by Business Insider in 2018; Katherine Mathieson, the Chief Executive of the British Science Association; Ronke Mojoyinola Olabisi, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers University working with Mae Jemison on 100 Year Starship, an interdisciplinary initiative that is exploring the possibility of human interstellar travel; and Powtawche Valerino, the first Native American woman to receive a PhD in mechanical engineering from Rice University. Valerino is a mechanical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked as a navigation engineer for the Cassini mission. Wade says the response to her work surfacing the achievements of these inspiring women on Wikipedia has been incredibly positive.
Secondly, organisations in these fields could provide training for staff at all levels via edit-a-thons to build capacity for an inclusive, global, online community. Investing in a Wikimedian, an in-house expert that is dedicated to educating and supporting an organisation to contribute to Wikipedia, would enable larger institutions to permanently embed gender equality within their organisational culture.
Institutions that currently host, or have hosted, a Wikipedian in Residence include libraries (e.g. the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Wellcome Library), charities, museums, archives, the Royal Society of Chemistry, heritage organisations (eg. Museums Galleries Scotland), UNESCO and universities (University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford).
At the University of Edinburgh, discussion around meeting the information literacy and digital skills needs of staff and students, and how to better meet the university’s commitment to Athena SWAN led to working with Wikimedia UK. Research by Professor Allison Littlejohn at the Open University validated that running editathons at the University contributed to the formation of networks of practice and development of social capital.
“Editathons, if run well, can develop not just technical knowledge but also workplace cultural capital and networks. These are the things women need in STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering) workplaces. ” – Melissa Highton, Assistant Principal at the University of Edinburgh.
Participants also saw it as an important part of their professional development and felt that editing was a form of knowledge activism which helped generate important discussions about how knowledge is created, curated and contested online and how Wikipedia editors can positively impact on the knowledge available to people all around the world and addressing those knowledge gaps.
“It’s an emotional connection… Within, I’d say, less than 2 hours of me putting her page in place it was the top hit that came back in Google when I Googled it and I just thought that’s it, that’s impact right there!” Anita – editathon participant.
Thirdly, national policies across education, research and workforce development could put the spotlight on the powerful impact online platforms like Wikipedia have on women in science and recommend strategies to capitalise on them. For its part the University of Edinburgh has recommended that Wikipedia Women in Red editing forms part of its new four year action plan for meeting its commitment to the Athena SWAN charter by surfacing role models in ten academic disciplines; to encourage and inspire the next generation of immodest women.
“Search is the way we live now”
According to 2011 figures in the book “Google and the Culture of Search”, Google processed over 91% of searches internationally. Google’s ranking algorithm also narrows the sources clicked upon 90% of the time to just the first page of results.
American feminist scholar of 18th-century British literature, and a noted Wikipedian, Adrienne Wadewitz noted the important role in addressing knowledge gaps on Wikipedia and Google could have:
“Google takes information from Wikipedia, as do many other sites, because it is licensed through a Creative Commons Share-Alike license. Those little boxes on the left-hand side of your screen when you do a Google search? From Wikipedia. The information that is on Wikipedia spreads across the internet. What is right or wrong or missing on Wikipedia affects the entire internet.”
More recently, researchers at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University have underlined the substantial interdependence of Wikipedia and Google. The results of two deception studies, whose goal was to better demonstrate the relationship between Wikipedia and Google, demonstrated Google depends on Wikipedia and vice versa. Click through rate decreased by 80% if Wikipedia links were removed. Wikipedia was shown to depend on Google. 84.5% of visits to Wikipedia were noted to being attributable to Google.
This means that addressing knowledge gaps on Wikipedia will surface the knowledge to Google’s top results, help populate and power Google’s ‘Knowledge graph’ (presented as a box to the right of search results) and increase visibility, click through and knowledge-sharing. Wikipedia editing can be seen as a form of activism in the democratisation of access to information.
A powerful reminder of the impact Wikipedia can have can be seen among young women and girls, who often lack easily identifiable female role models to follow. Bringing female role models to the fore beyond the world of celebrity and reality television is something that both Girlguiding UK and psychologist Penelope Lockwood noted was necessary for female students to feel that success is possible in order to broaden their future career aspirations.
Last Summer, schoolgirls from across London were invited by the Mayor of London’s office to take part in a editathon at Bloomberg for London Tech Week to redress the gender balance on Wikipedia through adding new entries on women CEOs, editors, entrepreneurs, lawyers and artists. The hope is this will kickstart further editathons across London and the UK; to further empower students up and down the country that their contributions are valued and that there are inspirational people out there achieving success in fields they just might aspire to join.
A new Open Access book on Gender Equality in higher education, EqualBite, asserts that the problem is persuading girls to consider and apply for STEM courses in the first place when they could apply for any number of courses, given that girls outperform boys at school including in STEM subjects. Recognising women’s achievements and contributions through creating and editing Wikipedia articles can encourage the next generation to take up careers in science. This could help address workforce shortages across many STEM fields and generate significant amounts of economic growth through diversifying innovation and entrepreneurship. Beyond this, we need to look at how improving the visibility of women role models in the online world can better shape our physical environments. The University of Edinburgh Student Association has recently worked on a project to improve diversity in student spaces through replacing the all-male portraits on the walls with more diverse group of portraits to encourage a greater sense of belonging. Similarly, a project in Hertford College, Oxford to mark 40 years of women at the college specially commissioned photograph portraits of women graduates, staff and students to replace the all-male portraits on the walls. By increasing awareness of female achievements online, we can create more inclusive, more diverse, more representative, more empowering physical environments to help breed confidence and undo the negative impact this lack of representation engenders.
“Meanings are projected not just by the buildings themselves, but by how they are furnished and decorated. And where almost every image –portrait, photograph, statue – of academic achievement and leadership is masculine (and nearly always white middle-aged), the meaning is clear: to be a successful leader, gender and ethnicity matter.”
The benefits are clear but the scale of the challenge is massive. It has taken Women in Red editors two years to move the percentage of biographies of women on Wikipedia up by 2%. Looking to the future, Artificial Intelligence may prove one method to help address the gender gap. The software tool, Quicksilver, developed by San Francisco startup Primer has been created to help address the blind-spots on Wikipedia, with women in science a particular focus. Using machine-learning algorithms, Quicksilver searches the internet for news entries, links to sources, scientific citations and helps pull all this information together to auto-generate fully-sourced draft Wikipedia entries. This has since been tested at an editathon in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History.
“Maria Strangas, the museum researcher who organized the event, says it helped the 25 first-time editors update the pages for roughly 70 women scientists in just two hours. “It magnified the effect that event had on Wikipedia,” Strangas says.”
So far, over 40,000 summaries have been generated by the Quicksilver method. These entries then need proofread by Wikipedia editors before they can be added to Wikipedia’s livespace. Given that the number of ‘very active’ Wikipedia editors on English Wikipedia remains low at around 3,541 (the population of a small village) the importance of encouraging and empowering a diversity of editors to engage with Wikipedia editing is crucial in terms of increasing the visibility of inspirational female role models online to, in turn, encourage and empower the next generation of women in STEM whose scientific breakthroughs can continue to shape our world for the better.