I walk every day. It is a lifelong habit and ritual. Every day when I am finished working I go for a 1-2 hour walk. To mull things over, be with the trees and get exercise. Sometimes I bring my earbuds and catch up on the news or phone calls. Recently while catching up on the news on one of these walks I ended up feeling quite disturbed.
Listening to NPR I heard an interview with sociologist and media scholar Dr. Francesca Tripodi discussing her research into the gender data biases on English-language Wikipedia. It was bad enough to hear that of the 1.5 million biographies on that site that feature notable writers, inventors and academics, less than 19% are about women, but to then hear that efforts to change this have revealed deeper problems than this visible discrepancy of who gets a place on Wikipedia really set me spinning.
As I went on to dig deeper into Tripodi’s ongoing research, it became clear that the issue of equity on Wikipedia is yet another illustration of an overall gender data gap and gender bias learned and inherent in the culture at large. That though there are clear and obvious reasons to point to for this glaring gender gap, like that 90% of the editors and contributors on Wikipedia are male, this gap is also in part created and based on what we as a culture choose to click on and what we (all genders) as readers think is important that cause these discrepancies as well. (To understand more about this, see Tripodi’s piece: No, Big Tech Isn’t Silencing Conservatism.)
“As my qualitative and quantitative data demonstrate, the problem of underrepresentation on Wikipedia runs deeper than simply missing pages. Not only are Wikipedia’s notability criteria a barrier for women, even women who meet these stringent guidelines for inclusion are still more likely than men to be considered “nonnotable” and nominated for deletion. . . . . This finding . . . suggests that a subject’s gender, identifiable through pronouns or forename, is being used to make snap judgments regarding perceived relevance. Such a finding indicates that gender discrimination is multi-layered, revealing the extra hurdles women face when trying to establish cultural significance”(Ms. Categorized 12).
If working on nastywomenwriters.com for five years has taught me anything it is that lots of women of every race and color have done lots of really important things throughout all of history but one would never know it from looking at so called inclusive surveys or lists.
The reason why my sister, Maria, and I started nastywomenwriters.com is because it was apparent at the Women’s March in 2017 that even many of the people marching did not know about these powerful women throughout history or the ones that are currently among us, though there have been efforts in every generation to bring them forth. Women and their accomplishments, including famous women writers, are continuously ignored, or successfully deleted or erased.
Why does every generation keep “rediscovering” these so called unknown but important women from history as though they are the first to do so? It’s a fallacy and lie yet we are like mice in a maze circling over and over again with the worst kind of collective amnesia. It’s mind boggling.
See our piece: Collective Restoration: Bring Us (WomenWriters)Back.
And we cannot blame only men. Why aren’t more women listening for and promoting the stories of women? Why haven’t we all as a culture created a more inclusive curriculum? Why aren’t more women clicking on stories of powerful women when they come up on social media or search engines thereby demonstrating to the search engines that these stories are indeed valuable? If women are 52% of the population and all or most of that 52% showed more interest in women there may actually be a change.
Tripodi’s research into Wikipedia concluded that the biases are more than inherent and systemic. They are structural.
“As Wikipedia is a semi-anarchic volunteer project, little editorial oversight exists. While the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit committed to free and open-sourced information projects, hosts Wikipedia, editors and admins are not beholden to the organizations recommendations. Suggestions from Wikimedia can be disregarded or repealed” (Ms. Categorized 14).
Tripodi’s research showed that even when large scale efforts are made to create more equity on the Wikipedia site through events called edit-a-thons where volunteer editors get together and spend time researching and creating more bio entries about women, these are more rapidly flagged for deletion by Wikipedia editors and in fact deleted more readily than biographies of men on Wikipedia. Volunteers working at these edit-a-thons find that they must do double the work, first creating the bio and then making sure it is not immediately flagged for deletion. If it is marked for deletion, they then need to attend to how to fight this in an often hostile environment within Wikipedia itself and with the predominantly male editors.
Also the standards for qualifying to be a notable person on Wikipedia are skewed since the editor has to prove the importance of this person by citing articles in books and magazines where their accomplishments have been recognized. It is always easier for men to receive such recognition than people who identify as female. Women and ethnic minorities are generally ignored and dismissed by large scale media outlets even when they accomplish fabulous achievements.
“In order for women to establish notability, they first have to be written about in books, covered in the news, featured in galleries. And we already know that’s harder for women”(https://www.npr.org/2021/07/13/1015754856/who-gets-to-be-notable-and-who-doesnt-gender-bias-on-wiki)
“Wikipedians trying to close the gender gap must work nearly twice as hard to prove women’s notability, devoting extra time to track the biographies they create to ensure notable biographies about women are not subsequently deleted” (Ms. Categorized 10).
Furthermore, female editors on Wikipedia are subjects of harassment from other editors and have regularly received rape threats from random readers. OY VEY!
Another huge issue is that search engines and AI use and are in large part trained by Wikipedia entries how to deem who is important or what gets pulled up when certain questions are asked. Wikipedia contributes to Google, Siri and Alexa (to name a few) knowledge panels. Having fewer entries on Wikipedia for women and minorities will mean they come up less in results when people plug questions into their search engines and these various devices.
“And so when women go missing from Wikipedia, that absence reverberates throughout the 21st century in pretty much any way we go to learn about something. So discrediting the significance of women subjects holds really wide implications” (https://www.npr.org/2021/07/13/1015754856/who-gets-to-be-notable-and-who-doesnt-gender-bias-on-wiki).
It is important for people to understand that the AI is taught not only by programmers but also in large part by user clicks and choices. As stated earlier, unfortunately, the current clicks and choices further promote to AI the already insurmountable bias in the culture that women and people with female pronouns are less important than men and those with the male pronouns he and him.
Tripodi suggests we should begin by calling everyone by the non-binary pronouns “they” and “them” so that AI cannot carry that bias on. Articles about women carry many other female identifying words, like female, wife, first woman… etc., which search engines and AI read as people of less importance.
I understand and partly agree with Tripodi’s proposal to change all pronouns to the non-binary they and them but at the same time it makes me feel despondent. Because we live in a world where the default is male unless otherwise noted, including the words female and she and woman in posts and articles about people who identify as female lets the reader know it is not a male we are speaking of.
See our post about gender data bias and the male default: Invisible Women: Data Bias In a World Designed For Men by Courageous Woman Writer Caroline Criado Perez.
Unfortunately it seems that at the same time, including these gender identifying words is counteracting efforts to promote or equalize the field for female identified people by subjecting them to erasure, dismissal and a demotion in importance due to inherent and learned biases of users and the algorithms of tech platforms.
Francesca Tripodi, PhD, is a writer and assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill and a senior researcher at the Center for Information Technology and Public Life. Read the full article detailing her research into Wikipedia: Ms. Categorized: Gender, notability and inequality on Wikipedia. Visit her Website and read her page on medium.com.
This post has so much bad news that I wanted to bullet point some action steps people can take.
- We all need to examine our own biases. For instance when you hear the word doctor, lawyer or politician do you see a man or a woman and do you see a certain race?
- If you see the pronoun “she,” do you give less credence in your mind to what is being said or offered? If you see that a speaker for a talk is a female do you rank it lower in your mind than a talk by a speaker identified as male?
- Are you more inclined to listen when a man speaks than when a woman speaks? Do you give more weight to what men say than women?
- Do you react differently to a woman in a position of leadership than a man? Do you act more respectful of a man’s authority than a woman’s? Extend that further by adding black woman and black man.
- If you read a list of people who are doing or did things deemed important and don’t see women represented don’t assume that means there weren’t any to include. Assume they were erased or left out and then attempt to fix it.
- In groups, places of employment or volunteer organizations that you are involved with, ask about their policy around sexual harassment. What are the policies? Where does one go when experiencing sexual harassment? If there aren’t any policies, ask them to implement them.
- Begin to expect to have good and equal representation of all genders, races, etc. in all levels of engagement, including top management, in organizations you are involved with. Be surprised when there is not.
- Volunteer for Women in Red, an organization devoted to increase the amount of information on Wikipedia about women and issues of importance to women. Read more about them here.
Support the work of scholars like Francesca Tripodi so that we can learn more about the actual causes of these inequities and the corrections that are needed so we can be more effective in bringing change to this structural paradigm.
Francesco Tripodi is a #Nasty Woman Writer and Scholar.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Works Cited and Recommended:
Gender Bias on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_bias_on_Wikipedia
Who gets to be Notable and Who doesn’t: Gender Bias on Wiki. https://www.npr.org/2021/07/13/1015754856/who-gets-to-be-notable-and-who-doesnt-gender-bias-on-wiki
Singer, Jenny. The Women of Wikipedia are Writing Themselves into History, https://www.glamour.com/story/the-women-of-wikipedia-are-writing-themselves-into-history
Tripodi, Francesca, Ms. Categorized: Gender, notability, and inequality on Wikipedia.
Zitser, Joshua. Hundreds of Dedicated Wikipedia Volunteers are Defying the Sexists to Write Women Back into History. https://www.insider.com/wikipedia-volunteers-write-women-back-into-history-fight-gender-gap-2021-4