On May 23, 2018, Wikipedian Bradv declined a suggestion for a new entry. The article contained too few relevant sources. A few months later, the story went around the world. In October, Donna Strickland was the third woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, but nobody could read about what Strickland was doing research on Wikipedia. Bradv had recently rejected the biography of a future Nobel Prize winner.
This is not a coincidence and it is not an isolated incident. Studies show that women are treated differently on Wikipedia than men. Articles about women often address family and relationship life, have more negative connotations and contain fewer cross-references. If they are written at all, five out of six biographies deal with men. The German Wikipedia even pulls the cut down a bit.
Wikipedia affects how hundreds of millions of people view history, science, and politics. She wants to organize the knowledge of the world and make it accessible to everyone, but her perspective is distorted: on her 20th birthday, she is still white, western and male.
“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”
This applies not only to her issues, but also to the community of those who work on her. There is one Wikipedian for every nine Wikipedians. As early as 2011, Sue Gardner, then chairwoman of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, named nine reasons why hardly any women participate. Above all, they are deterred by the often aggressive, opinionated and sometimes openly misogyne tone. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wanted to have a quarter of women by 2015. A year before the deadline he had set himself, he admitted that he had “failed completely”. Wales promised to redouble their efforts, but so far there has been no success.
Neither Wikipedia nor Wikimedia can change some of the causes. The encyclopedia depicts the worldAnd in 2021 too, what James Brown sang half a century ago will often still apply in politics, business and sport: “It’s a man’s man’s man’s world”. In addition, women with children in particular spend more time in care work. Therefore, they have less free time to be able to afford a hobby like Wikipedia.
IvaBerlin wants to get women excited about Wikipedia
But even in an unequal world, Wikipedia is a particularly male-dominated place. Women like IvaBerlin want to change that. IvaBerlin, that’s her username, signed up for Wikipedia ten years ago and is involved with WomenEdit. The initiative organizes monthly meetings in Berlin and now also in Erlangen, which are currently taking place virtually. “I was invited to a meeting a little over eight years ago that was supposed to interest women in Wikipedia,” says Iva. “That’s when I discovered that I’m not the only woman. I’ve been coming every month since then.”
Iva spends ten to 15 hours a week organizing introductory events, networking authors, sifting through work on women’s biographies and organizing so-called edit-a-thons. This is where Wikipedians meet to create new articles together. It is based on the writing project “Women in Red”, which collects remarkable women whose names appear in red on Wikipedia. This means that no one has created an entry for them yet.
In addition to the tone that Iva calls “improvable”, the language bothers her. Wikipedia sticks to the generic masculine word and does not take gender identity into account in its categories either. Donna Strickland is listed as a “woman”, but at the same time as a “university professor” and “Nobel laureate in physics”. At least for Wikipedians themselves, this is gradually changing. “I’m glad that there have been some changes in the course of my engagement,” says Iva. “Now it’s time to ‘write a mail to this user’. And since the beginning of the year there have been ‘inside pages’ when a person wants to be addressed as female.”
A code of conduct should make Wikipedia friendlier
It shouldn’t stop at cosmetic changes. “We are on the verge of presenting a universal code of conduct,” says Wikimedia boss Katherine Maher. The agreement is intended to impose rules for all authors on how to treat them with respect. Above all, it creates clear criteria for sanctioning insults and harassment. So far, those affected have had to actively complain about the perpetrators, which often leads to acts of revenge.
For Maher, this is an important step to get more women excited about Wikipedia: “We have to create an environment in which people can safely participate without fear of attack,” she says. Wikipedia must become a community that welcomes everyone – and in which articles about female physicists are not simply rejected because the author considers them to be irrelevant.