Sunday, 26 February 2017

Leaving women out of history (or Wikipedia)

It's not new to say that women have been left out of history. We were often too busy holding the baby to go out and do any top-class conquering, so our fathers, husbands, sons and brothers got all the glory while we had to made do with bringing up the next generation of conquerors, or whatever.

It has been noticed that the very word 'history' is about men - it's 'his story' not her story.

Women are also being left out of Wikipedia. In December last year the world's largest encyclopedia reported that just 17% of its biographies were of women. It shows how important our half of the population is considered to be.

Part of the problem is simply that far fewer women than men have left traces in the history books. But Wikipedia isn't just about history - a lot of its biographies are of living people

A US Soldier is decorated for his service, accompanied by his wife.
Photo by Herald Post via Flickr Creative Commons. 

I'm going to massively over-simplify and say that there are two main reasons why women are underrepresented in Wikipedia

  1. Women are underrepresented in the history books. History remembers the man who fought in battle, not the woman who stayed at home bringing up his children.
  2. Most of the Wikipedia's editors are men (90% according to a 2011 survey), and we are naturally drawn towards writing about our own kind, men write about other men, and women get left out.
Wikipedia is massively influential. It can at times be inaccurate, and students are constantly told to be wary of its claims, and check their facts. But surely it must almost always be the first port of call of anyone trying to find out anything, from who discovered to DNA to how you make yoghurt.

Why are most of Wikipedia's editors men?

Anyone can edit Wikipedia - I have done. Sue Gardner - Journalist and former Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director - explained on her blog why women don't edit Wikipedia. Reasons include:
  • They don't like the unfriendly interface
  • They have less free time than men
  • They lack confidence in their own knowledge
  • They think it will bring them into situations of conflict which they don't like
  • The information women add to Wikipedia is more likely to be edited or deleted
  • They prefer volunteering on more social websites, with more opportunity for interaction
You can find a much better explanation of these, and the other reasons in Nine Reasons Why Women Don't Edit Wikipedia (in their own words).

The suggestion about lacking confidence is telling. It's a big deal to make a contribution to an encyclopedia. I mean, it's easy - anyone can make an edit in 30 seconds. But you have to be confident in your knowledge and believe that you are equipped to make a meaningful contribution, to tell the world something it doesn't already know. And my experience of women (myself included) is that we generally have less confidence in our abilities than men do. It's the 'if I know it, then probably everyone else does too' view.

What is the answer to the Wikipedia question?

Women aren't contributing to Wikipedia, and so they're not appearing in it. Wikipedia could make their interface more friendly (although the point of a wiki is that it's just nuts-and-bolts). Maybe they could try harder to make women feel welcome, actively recruit us, and show that they value our contribution. But they can't give women more free time, or self-confidence.

Sometimes there isn't an answer. But that doesn't mean we should stop asking the question.

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