Women Are Writing Themselves Back Into History on Wikipedia

Biographies of men on Wikipedia outnumber those of women by more than four to one. A group of volunteers is now trying to fix this gender gap in the digital historical record

If you were on the internet in April 2019, you may recognize computer scientist Katie Bouman, who went viral after her team captured the world’s first image of a black hole and her thrilled reaction was captured on camera.

That breakthrough prompted a Wikipedia volunteer to draft her biography for the digital encyclopedia. But the same day, it was nearly pulled by someone else who thought she wasn't notable enough to be included.

This incident points to a bigger problem: women feature in less than one in five biographies on Wikipedia. There are several reasons for this gap.

First, some background: Wikipedia pages are written and edited by a volunteer community that now numbers over 143,000 individuals, around 90% of whom are male. Anyone can write a draft article, and anyone can nominate an article for deletion. Editors then decide by consensus whether to keep the article, merge it with another one or delete it. 

More From NBCLX

How to Curate Your Social Media Feeds to Make You Feel Better, Not Worse

Can't Stop Staring At Yourself in that Zoom Call? Blame Zoom Fatigue

These decisions come down to guidelines set by Wikipedia editors in the early days, including a test of notability: Is there significant coverage of the topic in secondary sources? Are these sources reliable? Are they independent of the subject itself? By this criteria, enough editors rushed to defend Katie Bouman’s notability and ultimately saved her article from deletion. Many others, though, never see the light of day.

According to Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, a veteran volunteer who’s written over 5,000 articles since 2007, “information about men is much more readily available in large quantities than it is about women.” If a woman hasn’t been covered sufficiently in secondary sources, a Wikipedia editor may determine that she doesn't meet the notability standard. 

One study also found that women who do make the cut have to be relatively more notable than their male counterparts. That might have to do less with gender bias in the past and more with the way it manifests today. A Wikimedia Foundation survey from 2018 found that 14 percent of women faced harassment or a general lack of support as volunteers; some even said that they were sent porn. There’s even a Wikipedia page about gender bias on Wikipedia. 

In February, with an aim to “better attract and retain new and diverse volunteers,” the Wikimedia Foundation released its first Universal Code of Conduct. According to the policy, violations of the code – like harassment, trolling, and abuse of power – can result in sanctions. 

Meanwhile, editors of all genders have been working to combat bias through community organizing. In 2015, after learning that women made up just 15.53% of biographies on the English-language Wikipedia, Stephenson-Goodknight and an editor from Scotland named Roger Bamkin formed a group called Women in Red, named for the red links on the site that represent missing articles. In less than six years, they’ve turned over 17,000 red links to blue. But there’s still a lot of catching up to do.

If you want to contribute, Sandister Tei, a volunteer who won Wikimedian of the Year in 2020 for mobilizing editors in her home country of Ghana, says the best first step is to make an account. For additional guidance, groups like Art + Feminism organize open edit-a-thons, many of which are virtual, in partnership with museums, colleges and community centers around the world. 

Tei stresses that Wikipedia’s mission cannot be realized without a diverse editing community. “You're trying to build a sum of human knowledge," she said. "And you can't do that if you exclude people.”