Wikipedia Knows It Has a Sexism Problem... And Is Trying Surprisingly Hard to Fix It

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For those of you old enough to remember when the internet first became a thing, you might recall that, back in the '90s, websites were boxy and boring, fun stuff like social media and YouTube didn't exist, and the people that mostly put things online were basically thought of as mysterious and hyper-intelligent mole-people.

Twenty years later, everybody and their grandmas are website-building, blog-maintaining, and photo-editing like it's always been second nature. This is largely thanks to the fact that, over the years, the aforementioned coding moles have found ways to shortcut and streamline everything, so us regular folks don't need a computer science degree to be useful and active online. However, of all of the most frequently used websites in America, there is still one that makes life a little harder than it probably ought to be in 2017.

Wikipedia -- the sixth most popular website in America -- can feel purposely set up to make editing difficult. If you think back to the mid-2000s when Wikipedia was frequently mocked for getting facts wrong, it's tempting to wonder if they've kept it hard to edit on purpose -- perhaps fewer people editing means fewer errors? In reality, Wikipedia is simply more complicated to edit than most other websites now, for a variety of old school technical and software reasons (and even those are hard to understand). 

One of the main problems Wikipedia's editing interface has (at least partially) caused is a serious gender gap when it comes to the people who create and edit Wikipedia content. This has, in turn, created serious information gaps when it comes to profiling and dedicating pages to prominent women, whether they be female historical figures, artists, or authors.

In 2010, research done by the Wikimedia Foundation -- the company that runs Wikipedia -- discovered that around 87% of the website's editors identified as men. One of the first people to draw wider attention to that perplexing figure was Noam Cohen, a journalist for The New York Times who wrote an article in January 2011 titled "Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List." Cohen's article demonstrated how a lack of female editors was affecting Wikipedia's content:

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"...the Wikipedia entry for… Pat Barker… was a mere three paragraphs," Cohen noted. "Ms. Barker is an acclaimed writer of psychologically nuanced novels, many set during World War I. She is 67 and lives in England. By contrast, Niko Bellic had an article about five times as long as Ms. Barker’s at the time. It’s a question of demographics: Mr. Bellic is a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV."

Cohen's article prompted ex-Wikimedia director Sue Gardner to go public with her research into why women were so frequently put off by the Wikipedia editing process. Gardner concluded the reasons were as follows:

1. A lack of user-friendliness in the editing interface
2. Not having enough free time
3. A lack of self-confidence
4. Aversion to conflict and an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars
5. Belief that their contributions are too likely to be reverted or deleted
6. Some find its overall atmosphere misogynistic
7. Wikipedia culture is sexual in ways they find off-putting
8. Being addressed as male is off-putting to women whose primary language has grammatical gender
9. Fewer opportunities than other sites for social relationships and a welcoming tone

From that point on, not only has Wikipedia been surprisingly open about its own shortcomings -- listing them on pages like Wikipedia: Why Wikipedia is not so great and Gender Bias on Wikipedia -- it has actively been providing resources to try and diversify the demographics of its editors. There's the Teahouse, "a friendly place to learn about editing Wikipedia;" there's a Help page offering an extensive online manual about creating and editing pages; and there's a page about Wikipedia's Visual Editor.

Even more surprisingly, the Wikimedia Foundation has, since 2011, been willingly assisting edit-a-thons that are set up by outside organizations -- such as Art + Feminism -- specifically with the goal of fixing Wikipedia's gender bias-related content problems. Put simply, if you and a large enough group of people in your vicinity can't figure out how to contribute to Wikipedia, there is a good chance that Wikimedia will send over an expert volunteer to walk you through it. Art + Feminism has, in the last three years alone, held "280+ events across six continents, to create and improve thousands of Wikipedia pages for artists."

So far this year, edit-a-thons have been held by the likes of San Francisco art non-profit The Lab and New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Oakland Public Library started history edit-a-thons in 2013. At the end of last year, the UK's BBC, assisted by volunteers from Wikimedia UK, held 15 twelve-hour in 13 countries "to grow the number of female editors and to add women who... deserve to be recognized. "

In addition, in 2010, Wikipedia set up the Wiki Education Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit that was specifically created to teach students how to share information on Wikipedia. The organization's website explains: "Students research course-related topics that are missing or underrepresented, synthesize the available literature, and use our tools and trainings to add the information to Wikipedia. While contributing cited, well-founded information, they help combat fake news on the internet. After supporting tens of thousands of students, we’ve proven this model brings high-quality academic information to wide audiences."

At this point in history, undoubtedly one of the most valuable resources for feminist groups, and women in general, is the internet. It's where women find each other, commiserate, plan protests, and engage in activism. It's the reason January's Women's March turned into a global event, and it's the reason Brock Turner will probably never get a date for the rest of his life.

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It is well-documented that women and minorities have historically had their voices erased from the history books. Wikipedia offers a DIY tool to ensure those important figures get written back in. Editing on Wikipedia might not be the most fun way to spend your time online, and it's probably not the easiest, but the fact that Wikimedia is making genuine efforts to increase content and editorial diversity is a great step in the right direction. Organizing into groups and learning how to contribute to Wikipedia as an encyclopedic resource could quite literally impact history. There are few more powerful motivators than that.

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