Taking the Mickipedia

Dayna Tohidi writes that Wikipedia’s 80 percent male voluntary editorship demonstrates an outdated gender bias. So why is mansplaining endemic in the world’s most accessed encyclopaedia?

Graphic © FW Magazine

Up until I interned at Central Saint Martins' museum & study collection in March 2020, I was taught to avoid Wikipedia like the plague. Yet, it is an incredibly popular encyclopaedia that attracts 18 billion page views per month worldwide. However, Wikipedia grapples with greater issues than accuracy. The power dynamics between volunteer editors is questionable, and the gender bias gives reason to believe that the site has not progressed in tandem with society since it was founded in 2001.

At the museum, curator Sarah Campbell tasked me with the challenge of improving the representation of the female artists from the collection on Wikipedia. Fortunately for the novice volunteer editor I was, the timing of the project coincided with Art + Feminism’s annual Wiki Edit-a-thon in March. Established in 2014, Art + Feminism is a non-profit organization that aims to improve the representation of female artists on Wikipedia, whilst encouraging and teaching women how to become volunteer editors. I attended the London edit-a-thon hosted by Alexandra Duncan, Academic Support Librarian at the Chelsea College of Arts. For a site whose male editors account for around 80% of the editorship demographic, it struck me that, of the few attendees that showed up, all were women.

A deceiving volunteer-lead business model

When I first started to edit Wikipedia, it seemed relatively straightforward. I created an account for the museum and updated the pages of female artists Vivien Gribble and Pegaret Anthonyusing information from the museum’s database. But to my surprise, a fellow Wikipedia editor blocked my user account and removed all of my edits a couple hours after publishing. My initial reaction was shock; I was offended that my input was removed without any warning. After investigating, I learned that the user was in fact a Wikipedia administrator who, since becoming an active editor in 2011, specialises in combating copyright issues. They had blocked my account because Wikipedia does not allow volunteer users to create pages for organisations. Meanwhile, my edits were removed because I only cited one source, the museum database, which appeared as a conflict of interest.

“I have noticed that, when a volunteer with a female username edited Wikipedia, there have been discussions in the talk pages claiming that the volunteer does not have enough knowledge about the topic"

Although the Wikipedia administrator’s actions were justified, this experience made me aware of the ambiguous, unequal distribution of power on Wikipedia. Volunteer editors can be nominated to become administrators by the Wikipedia community. As administrators, they can block user accounts, delete pages and override edits made by volunteer editors. Another revelation was that Wikipedia allows editors to be paid by third parties such as employers or clients, as long as they disclose their affiliations and conflicts of interest. In my view, this contradicts the encyclopaedia’s user-led model of volunteer collaboration. Moreover, it damages the website’s credibility as an egalitarian and neutral educational resource.

Why women are overlooked

In 2016, the BBC revealed that only 17% of notable profiles on Wikipedia are about women and 15% of the encyclopaedia’s voluntary editors are female. How can gender bias exist when men and women have the same opportunity to edit the resource? Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation between 2007 and 2014, set out to answer this with her 2011 blog post titled: Nine Reasons Why Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (in their own words). After my brief stint of editing Wikipedia artist pages, I found myself relating to some of the reasons stated in the article. For example, the encyclopaedia’s intimidating user-interface, the contentious nature of Wikipedia’s talk pages and the likelihood of edits made by women to be deleted by administrators. “There is a big issue with harassment, especially in the German Wikipedia. I have noticed that, when a volunteer with a female username edited Wikipedia, there have been discussions in the talk pages claiming that the volunteer does not have enough knowledge about the topic,” Daniella Brugger, Art + Feminism’s Regional Ambassador for Europe, tells me.

In addition to the reasons that Gardner listed in her blog post, the lack of public awareness about the gender bias ingrained in Wikipedia’s culture perpetuates the problem. “I’ll openly admit that, at first, I didn’t notice the gender bias and I think that is really the heart of the matter. When you search online, it’s easy to be accepting of what you see,” Campbell tells me. “Coupled with that, at work I am often searching for information about artists that are not easily found. The combination of these factors meant that I didn’t realise how big the problems of bias were until Alex Duncan pointed it out to me.”

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, aimed to have 25% female editorship by 2015. Five years have passed, and this target has still not been achieved

George Floyd’s murder is a testament to the perils of a lack of public awareness about bias. It took the death of an innocent black man to force white global citizens to question their own racial biases. “I think, like with Black Lives Matter, it’s going to involve a lot of uncomfortable conversations and a lot of learning and listening to others in order to put an end to the encyclopaedia’s gender bias,” Campbell explains. “The strength of Wikipedia is the fact that anyone can edit, but the socio-economic, racial, gendered and political factors that govern life outside the internet still shape the online world, leading to a narrowing of voices online and an unconscious and conscious shutting down of information,” she continues. For a number of years the Museum has been trying to address a lack of diversity in its own collection. At present, at least 15% of their collection is by makers of colour, which is three times greater than the rest of the UK’s museums and galleries. “We do have quite a few artists of colour represented in the collection, but given how many of our students now come from non-European backgrounds we know we need to do better. This is an issue we are actively trying to improve by purchasing new work that better reflects our dynamic community at CSM.”

Tracking the progress

In 2015, the Wikimedia Foundation gave $250,000 to fund projects aimed at combating the gender gap, of which women accounted for only 34% of submitted proposals (the irony).The same year, Wikiproject Women in Red was launched, with the intention to create new articles about notable women. It encourages an inclusive approach to editing by not allowing the gender of the volunteer to be a determining factor in their contributions to Wikipedia. The group’s Twitter account is loaded with retweets of tweets by Wiki Women in Red volunteers, especially a woman called Penny Richards. She has created pages for numerous women, including Canadian Actress Roselle Knott, Newspaper Publisher Louise Boynton and American Journalist Nancy Kenaston.

One group that has achieved a lot in a fairly short amount of time is Art + Feminism. Over the last six years, over 14,000 people have participated in their worldwide, annual edit-a-thons, resulting in the creation and improvement of more than 58,000 articles on Wikipedia. “I would say there are mainly women attending our edit-a-thons but we always tell people it is open to all genders,” Brugger explains. “I think it might have several layers, and it is also a generational thing. When we talk about feminism, the older generation still understands it as a female only thing but the younger generation is better at understanding that there are also male feminists,” she continues.

While significant progress has been made over the last decade, there is much more work needed to be done to achieve gender equality among editors. The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, aimed to have 25% female editorship by 2015. Five years have passed, and this target has still not been achieved. “There is only a certain amount a group like that can do. They are fighting against a tide of bias, and unless that bias which originates from editorship changes, then I think it will always be a struggle to eliminate,” Campbell anticipates.