Making Wikipedia – and Society – More Gender Representative

Monthly edit-a-thons seek to increase representation of different genders on Wikipedia, the internet’s largest source of free information, also the most gender-biased.

Wikipedia edit-a-thon. Credit: Feminism in India

New Delhi: Inside the only unlatched classroom in a dimly-lit slate-grey building of a university in New Delhi, a group of 15 or so gathered on February 10 with their laptops for the monthly Wikipedia edit-a-thon. Almost all hands went up when asked who in the room was new to editing. So the members of Feminism in India (FII), organisers of the edit-a-thon, gave a primer on creating Wikipedia accounts and  its content guidelines. The day’s objective – increasing the representation of queer rights activists on Wikipedia – was restated and soon the noise of keyboard typing filled the air.

Wikipedia is the internet’s largest source of free information and the seventh most visited website in the world. Sadly, it is also one of the most gender-biased entities. An estimated 90% of its editors are men. Only 10% of its editors were women in 2015, and the number was even lower in India – 3%.

This gender disparity has led to a serious bias in the site’s content. A Chicago-based student and a long-time editor identified almost 4,400 female scientists who meet Wikipedia’s standards for notability, but didn’t have a page, while multiple paragraphs were posted about obscure male scientists. Even when there are articles about women, these are highly skewed, focusing more on their ‘husbands’ and ‘families’.

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An editorial in the Guardian newspaper in 2014 pointed out that women porn stars were better covered on the online encyclopaedia than women writers. This ratio has changed since then but only because of concerted efforts of women editors around the world. With the objective of writing women back into history, the digital intersectional feminist platform, FII, has been organising such edit-a-thons for almost two years now.

“You can edit in any regional language you’re comfortable with,” announced an FII member. “We had a regular editor who would edit in Malayalam.”

The day’s edit list had names of queer rights activists who either didn’t have a Wikipedia page or had a stub page, which means it was too short to provide encyclopaedic coverage. Wikipedia pages of queer feminist author Jaya Sharma, Dalit and transgender activist Grace Banu, among others, were being updated to include more information. Saloni Drolia, an economics student, was editing the entry for Rose Venkatesan, India’s first transgender talk show host. “Most of this content isn’t factually accurate and lacks details about her life. It doesn’t even emphasis on the fact that she was the first trans radio host,” Drolia said. “This was only my first time editing but I am going to be a regular on the site now,” she added.

One reason why women are missing from Wikipedia is because they lack free time to generate content. Credit: Reuters

But why are there so few women editing Wikipedia? According to Japleen Pasricha, founder of FII, one of the reasons why women are missing from Wikipedia is because they lack free time. “Women have full-time jobs and most of their spare time goes into caring, looking after their families and households. Whatever spare time they have is spent in consuming content, not generating it.”

Pasricha also blamed the male-dominated environment of technology for Wikipedia’s sexist culture. “We’ve internalised technology as a man’s world,” she said. Female editors are often targets of their male colleagues and their contributions are likely to be subjected to higher scrutiny.

Even the Wikimedia Foundation has recognised the gender gap and has made efforts to close it. In 2011, it made a pledge to have 25% women contributors by 2015, but failed. Recently, it has been doling out grants to correct the gender imbalance. However, edit-a-thons around the world are playing a vital role in creating safe spaces for women to edit. Similar events organised by the global feminist movement, Art+Feminism, have been held at some of the world’s biggest art institutions, and have seen high participation. “We are conducting an event on March 3 in collaboration with Art+Feminism to expand the coverage of women in arts. It’s going to be bigger and more powerful,” Pasricha announced.

By 5 pm, the editors had added more than 4,000 words. Pasricha and her team have helped create hundreds of articles for missing women in art, science, sports, tech etc., and they have hundreds more to go till Wikipedia – and the society outside – stops being a man’s world.