February 19, 2015

Feminists organize editing sessions to address Wikipedia’s “gender trouble”



Planning is underway for the 2nd Annual Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, with events to be held worldwide. According to organizers, the day of editing is meant to combat statistics showing that the majority of editors and contributors to Wikipedia are men:

Wikimedia’s gender trouble is well-documented. In a 2011 survey, the Wikimedia Foundation found that less than 10% of its contributors identify as female. While the reasons for the gender gap are up for debate, the practical effect of this disparity, however, is not. Content is skewed by the lack of female participation. This represents an alarming absence in an increasingly important repository of shared knowledge.

As outlined in a recent article in the MIT Technology Review, computer scientists have concluded that Wikipedia articles are “deeply biased against women.” While the proportion of articles written about women and featured on the website are about equal to those about men, a computational linguistic analysis of those articles reveal some problems. For example:

 articles about women tend to emphasize the fact that they are about women by overusing words like “woman,” “female,” or “lady” while articles about men tend not to contain words like “man,” “masculine,” or “gentleman.” Words like “married,” “divorced,” “children,” or “family” are also much more frequently used in articles about women, they say.

Last year, in an effort to raise awareness of this bias, a “Wikipedia edit-a-thon” was held at Eyebeam’s Chelsea studios February 1st, and updating sessions happened simultaneously in dozens of cities, including Chicago, Halifax, Portland, and Iowa City. The inaugural edit-a-thon was organized by the Art + Feminism committee that included  Siân Evans of the Art Libraries Society of North America‘s Women and Art Special Interest Group, Jacqueline MabeyMichael Mandiberg and Laurel Ptak.

After the event, Nicole Casamento, a masters student in American literature at Brooklyn College and one of the 100 people who attended the inaugural session, told ArtNews: “The event seemed like a new kind of consciousness raising that was very goal-oriented. It was aimed at writing women into history in a new way for the digital age—by giving more women the awareness and tools to take matters in their own hands.”

At the end of 2014, Foreign Policy included the Art + Feminism committee in their list of the top 100 leading global thinkers, and said that last year’s “effort spanned some 30 cities—from New York to Amsterdam to Adelaide—and its participants created about 100 new articles and modified at least 90.” Articles that were created last year and continue to be expanded include Wikipedia entries on Eve Andree Laramee, Senga Nengudi, Joan Semmel, Split Britches, Zarina (artist), and Lill Tschudi.

In an email, the Art + Feminism group told me that they hope these efforts will continue beyond edit-a-thon events:

It is important to note that the project’s mission isn’t simply to correct articles in Wikipedia, but to give women the tools to do so on our own… Over the course of the year, we’ve been building out training to support women and feminist allies in making their own edits on Wikipedia, without the necessity for the structure of an edit-a-thon around them.

This year, the same group is organizing another day of Wikipedia updates on March 7th, in collaboration with the Professional Organization for Women in the Arts, which will feature over 50 satellite events at new venues like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, Fondation Galeries Lafayette, and the Stedelijk Museum. The central New York event will be held at the Museum of Modern Art. For the second year, Art + Feminism has received a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, which will go toward providing “financial assistance to our satellite events for childcare, refreshments and travel grants.”

Training sessions and materials produced by Art + Feminism with assistance from key members of Wikimedia NYC and the Art Libraries Society of North America Women and Art Special Interest Group [SIG] have been made available to help participants (“women, women-identified, and male allies welcomed”) prepare for the 2nd annual edit-a-thon.

Art + Feminism has worked over the past year to create a system with tools designed to encourage growth of their efforts:

Thanks to a separate grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, we’ve launched an initiative called +Feminism. We’re building a robust procedural and personnel infrastructure that would allow for the project to grow, and for others to replicate our process. We are building on existing infrastructure on Wikipedia to create slides, promotional materials, video tutorials, targeted training, and other reusable materials, so they can be used both by our group, and satellite events, as well as reused by other gender gap campaigns and outreach. Our goal is both sustainability and reproducibility, so that we and others can continue this work.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.