Why women are missing from history on Wikipedia

Article by Laura Hartnell /
Mamamia /
February 11, 2017 /
Click here to view original /

A curious thing is happening over at Wikipedia: women are missing from its pages, both as subjects and editors.

A 2010 survey found only 13 per cent of editors that contributed to Wikipedia identified as female. A follow-up study in 2013 found things were slowly improving, with women comprising 16 per cent of editors globally.

In an eerie echo of this figure, a 2015 study also found only 16 per cent of biographies on Wikipedia were of women.

Much like in the real world, the online gender gap is alive and well.

The fact that men write almost all the articles on Wikipedia is a problem. By erasing women’s voices, it means that one of the world’s most popular websites is failing to accurately reflect our society and history.

“Having men produce the lion’s share of content … perpetuates men’s voices dominating the public space and … continuing to be the authority on issues,” says Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

This International Women’s Day, Wikipedia editors from around the world are coming together for the third Art + Feminism ‘edit-a-thon’, an event designed to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of women.

Last year’s event saw about 1,500 participants in 75 locations across 17 countries come together to edit and create new Wikipedia articles.

As a result, almost 400 new articles were added, with subjects chosen from the Women in Red lists compiled by Art + Feminism, and over 500 improvements to the accuracy and scope of existing articles were made.

In 2016 Art + Feminism is holding 125 events on every continent, with the flagship event taking place on the weekend just past at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Each of the smaller international events are organised by individuals, and while no-one is hosting a face-to-face event in Australia this year, Art + Feminism encourages those interested to participate by watching their training videosWomen in Red virtual edit-a-thon which runs throughout March.

But critics of Wikipedia edit-a-thons — who lurk in the comments sections of almost every news article on the topic — argue that addressing Wikipedia’s gender gap is solely the responsibility of the women who don’t participate.

“Surely wiki is open to edit by anyone, and therefore a lack of female editors is nothing to do with anyone but those women who don’t edit,” said one commenter at the Guardian

Why don’t women contribute to Wikipedia?

However, women refrain from becoming Wikipedia editors for a number of reasons, says Sue Gardner, former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

These include Wikipedia’s non-user-friendly interface; a lack of self-confidence; and an aversion to “Wikipedia’s sometimes-fighty culture”.

As one female editor explains editing often involves arguing with others about the changes you are making.

“To stick around there can require you to be willing to do the virtual equivalent of stomping on someone’s foot when they get in your face, which a lot of women, myself included, find difficult,” the editor says.

Ms Gardner adds that “some women don’t edit Wikipedia because the information they bring to Wikipedia is too likely to be reverted or deleted … [or] because they find its overall atmosphere misogynist.”

In other words, the inner world of Wikipedia is representative of the sexism women experience in the real world on a daily basis. “Wikipedia is a reflection of the society that produces it,” Ms Gardner says.

For Dr Rosewarne, closing Wikipedia’s gender gap begins with acknowledging that the problem exists, something many male editors are reluctant to do as it threatens the status quo.

“Both men and women need to agree that there actually is a problem, and women then need to feel sufficiently riled up about the problem to go online and author some of their own articles,” Dr Rosewarne says.

7 women missing from Wikipedia history

For anyone wanting to give editing a go in the name of gender equality, here are just seven Australian women missing from Wikipedia who are deserving of their own pages.

These women have all contributed immeasurably to their respective fields of arts, science and politics; according to Wikipedia, however, they don’t exist. So let’s give them the biographies they deserve, and help make Wikipedia a more inclusive place for all.

Joyce Clague
Lu Rees
Mary Booth
Dr Isabel Orminston
Mary Jane Warnes
Ida Gertrude Margaret Halley
Anne Evelyn Clark