What You Can Do about the Gender Gap on Wikipedia: The WWHACKathon

by cv harquail on January 31, 2011

It’s only 9:15 on a Monday morning and already I’ve received six emails suggesting that I blog about today’s New York Times article about the Gender Gap at Wikipedia. What really is there to say, that hasn’t been said before?

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia_1296487428463.jpegWe know about how men’s self-confidence, geek machismo, and other dynamics of male-ism influence the proportion of men’s vs women’s activity on Wikipedia. And, the article makes us aware of the important problems created by women’s under-representation on Wikipedia, which include and are not limited to:

  • Few entries on topics topics that primarily interest women (e.g., Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, the politics of hair in the African American community)
  • Few entries framed by and founded on a women’s / feminist perspective,
  • Inadequate and sometimes no ‘web citation of record’ to inform people of the importance of a topic (i.e, “if it ain’t on Wikipedia by now, could it really be important?”).

Let’s be clear: There is no way for those of us who support Gender Parity, #SHEtalkTED, #morevoices, or ChangingtheRatio to get around this awkward truth about Wikipedia and women’s representation there:

Wikipedia is a self-nominating system. Anyone who wants to create an entry, and anyone who wants to revise an entry, can do that if she chooses. All she needs to do is find the time, sign up, log in, and go.

In other words, No one is keeping women off Wikipedia, but US. Ourselves. We are not shaping Wikipedia, because we are not volunteering there.

On Wikipedia, there are no formal barriers to women’s participation. Certainly, there are informal barriers — like the overwhelming maleness of the “objective” ‘voice’, and the likelihood that you can get harassed on Wikipedia by some mansplainer who insists on editing out your women’s perspective. But we can deal with this– every woman who blogs already deals with this.

Other informal barriers may be significant too. Speaking for myself, I’ve never created a Wikipage for anything, and I have a PhD (so obviously expertise isn’t the issue for me). A couple of times when I’ve thought “Hey, this Wikipedia entry needs some help” (like that page on a management concept where the person who created the page only cited herself, despite there being 100 other experts on the topic) I’ve felt daunted by the time commitment. I am totally flacktastically over-committed elsewhere, between community, school, politics, justice, and family efforts to which I donate time and mindshare. Blah blah blah… I’ve said this all before, and so have you. These obstacles are real.

And, I already spend too many hours in front of this computer — spending yet more time online crafting definitive entries on various under-served topics just doesn’t appeal to me, to be perfectly honest. And, I already do this a lot on my blogs.

However, when I look at this all more closely, I have to ask— is it that hard? Are the obstacles so great? No. And no. Maybe I, and you, just need to get more comfortable with the idea of making Wikipedia entries. Maybe with this one, we should just do it?

But why do it alone?

Why not create a WWHackathon — a Women’s Wikipedia Hackathon.

You’ve heard, of course, about “hackathons”, where hackers/ programmers get together and donate time and skill to a particular shared problem? Here’s the Wikipedia entry for Hackathon. Note that this entry was written by men.

Why not do something similar, but make it a Women’s Wikipedia Hackathon– a WWHackathon?

WWHackathons won’t require money, a location, sponsors, or a bake sale. They just require each of us, on our own time, and on our own topics of expertise and interest, to write a Wikepedia entry.

For the Women’s Wikipedia Hackathon:

  • Each one of us commits to writing one entry. When we complete an entry, we tweet it to our followers using the tag #WikiWhack. At the very least, it can be your own bio. Or your own area of expertise.
    I’ll commit to writing a Wikipedia entry about the WWHackathon, and I’ll do it by Feb. 8th.

    What will you commit to? Add your entry here, on IfWeRanTheWorld

  • At programs that develop women writers, speakers and public intellectuals, such as the OpEd Project and the Women Action and Media fellowship program, each participant practices the skills and shares her voice by adding a Wikepedia entry?
  • Each feminist organization, each women’s organization, and each women’s initiative commits to creating a Wikipedia entry for their group, along with appropriate bios of their leaders/key members, and more
  • Women’s blogging conferences and women tech conferences hold one WWHackathon session, where women bring their laptops and write a Wikipage in the company of other women bloggers? I bet that Elisa, Lisa and Jori would be right on that….
  • Progressive blogging conferences and blogging conferences for specific groups (e.g., BloggingWhileBrown, NetRoots Nation), hold a WWHackathon session, where women and men bring their laptops and write Wikipages that add a women’s and/or feminist perspective, in the company of other bloggers?
  • “Regular” blogging conferences and tech conferences (like BlogWorld) hold a WWHackathon session, where women and men bring there laptops and write Wikipages that add a women’s and/or feminist perspective, in the company of other bloggers?

These are just a few tactics — what others should we add?

Put your ideas in the comments and/or add them to the Action Platform on IfWeRanTheWorld

“The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally — trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change.”

— Kat Walsh, longtime Wikipedia contributor & Wikimedia board member

I don’t necessarily agree with Ms. Walsh’s diagnosis, but I do agree with her response.

Changing the representation of women on Wikipedia requires conscious effort — yours, mine and ours. So let’s get to it.201101311026.jpg

And, while we’re at it, why don’t we add a definitive, feminist answer to a question on Quora?


jon February 2, 2011 at 1:03 am

Great suggestion, CV — and brilliant use of Twitter hashtags and IWRTW too.

One other tactic that could work well is overlapping it with something like #sheparty on Twitter. People could chat as they’re writing their entries, or write them collaboratively. At least for me it’s tremendously intimidating to edit Wikipedia, so doing it with help and a supporting group sounds a lot more pleasant.

What suggestions do you have about how allies can help?


Don February 2, 2011 at 1:11 am

Why are “objective” and “voice” in quotes?

Kate February 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm

I think “objective” is in quotes because in the past males have tried to make everyone believe that only males are objective in the way they look at the world and issues, whereas women’s voices are emotional and subjective, therefore inferior. Perhaps “voice” is in quotes to distinguish the literary concept of voice from the physical voice we use in speech. However, I don’t know why one is in double quotes and the other is in single.

cv harquail February 2, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Hi Kate and Dan-
Thanks for commenting! Kate, you’re right that I was using quote marks on ‘voice’ to distinguish it as a technical concept. With the word “objective”, the quotes are there to problematize the concept of “objective”.

“Objective” is problematic, because nothing written is ever “objective” — it always has a rhetorical position, it always has a point of view. There are facts in Wikipedia, but there are no “objective” entries. Every entry has been edited and/or curated.

“Objective” is also problematic because the very notion of something being without a point of view demonstrates a particular world-view, one that is masculine-ist and kyrarchical. And, Kate you nailed another problem, which is that “men are objective” and “women are subjective”.

As for the difference between single quotes and double quotes? I am totally making it up as I go along. The APA style guides do not (afaik) indicate how to distinguish how to use quote marks to highlight and contrast ironic, conceptual, and politically questionable terms… so I just wing it. If you know any standards or principles, let me know. 😉
Thanks again.

Ken February 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Curiously, this is the exact same argument that the Conservapedia people make: There are few articles on Wikipedia written from an explicitly conservative/christian perspective and editors are actively stopping us from adding our perspective, so Wikipedia must be biased and broken.

Everyone is welcome and encouraged to edit Wikipedia, but you having articles “framed by and founded on a women’s / feminist perspective” (or conservative perspective, or any other perspective) is in direct opposition to the goals of the project. Please read:
“Neutral point of View”

cv harquail February 2, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Ken, thanks for your comment and for adding the link to Wikipedia’s policy on “neutral point of view”, which I excerpt below.

“The NPOV policy says nothing about objectivity. In particular, the policy does not say that there is such a thing as objectivity in a philosophical sense—a “view from nowhere” (to use Thomas Nagel’s phrase), such that articles written from that viewpoint are consequently objectively true. That is not the policy, and it is not our aim! Rather, to be neutral is to describe debates rather than engage in them. In other words, when discussing a subject, we should report what people have said about it rather than what is so.

While feminists have a perspective or point of view on many important topics, not everyone/man writing entries about those topics may be aware of these feminist points of view. If the authors (or Wiki editors) are unaware of these perspectives, these perspectives will not be included in the description of ‘what people have said about an issue’.

Even “experts” in a topic or fans of a topic may be unintentionally or willfully ignorant of relevant feminist perspectives and data, so it is very likely that even the most well-intentioned experts, and editors, will fail to include these perspectives… which is why feminists and women should participate on Wikipedia.

Also, the neutral point of view only addresses sins of commission– it says nothing about how topics get included– or not. Without women, feminists, Christians, or any one else with a set of (sub) issues that would be relevant to include in a global encyclopedia adding new items to Wikipedia, these topics will not be included for all others to learn about. And, entries will not be available for others like themselves (but not as expert) to learn from. I’m not sure if Wikipedia has a policy to address biases in what entries are created, or not created.

So it’s two levels of issues–(1) whether feminist and women’s perspectives are included in a discussion about x, and (2) whether topics of concern to women, feminists, etc. are included at all.
Both issues can be addressed by encouraging women and feminists to contribute.

more thoughts?

Ken February 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm
Margaret Bartley February 3, 2011 at 5:28 am

I’ve joined many women-in-technology groups over the years, both in person and online, and I’ve always gotten irritated by how non-technical they were. They always seemed to focus on personal job searches, clothes, and relationship issues. Issues like economics, the transfer of the high-tech sector from the US to Asia, the lack of employee training in the work place, resulting in massive productivity losses in the business world, new trends in technology, new development platforms, etc, are hardly ever discussed in women’s groups.

That lack of interest in hard info would be more understandable if the charter of these groups was as a place to talk about things of interest only to women, but most of these groups say they want to provide a platform where women can speak on issues of importance with a woman’s voice, i.e. non-macho, reasoned, non-flaming, non-aggressive, intelligent, informed, etc, in an environment where people are treated with respect. These are not things generally available in the macho world of most high-tech environments, and does, as many people have pointed out, result in a lowered female contribution rate.

I do subscribe to one group that has a technical edge, but it’s geared mostly to graphic artists and marketers who use technology, rather than to developers, and it’s somewhat the same issue, although I’ve never seen them discuss clothing, and sometimes there are discussions like how to convert a document from one format to another. But that’s about the most technical talk I’ve heard on this listserve.

Women at Google had a few technical talks, which I found fascinating. I’m not sure if I got dropped off the list, or if they lost interest, but that was one of the few places where women were encouraged to talk techy, and it was very well attended.

Women do work better collaboratively than independently. I think that’s why they do better in school, which is structured, with authority-figure feedback on how they are progressing. This structure is decidedly not available in the real world, where people not only have to figure out what they want to learn, but they also have to figure out even where they will get the information to learn. And then they have to figure it out by themselves, and put it out to the world, before they get any feedback.

My concern about the suggestions in this article is that it sounds like another “soft” approach, rather than about getting women used to thinking about things they don’t normally think about, in a way they don’t normally think.

Certainly womens groups would help with that, but

Jeremiah Stanghini February 8, 2011 at 12:25 am

Re: Jon’s point…

Allies who want to support the cause could RT the tweets of the women who are contributing the feminine viewpoints to the Wiki articles.

They could also get the word out about this ‘event’ to their women friends both online and offline to let them know about what’s being organized here.

With Love and Gratitude,


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