Why it’s so hard for biographies about women to stay on Wikipedia
Jul 27, 2021

Why it’s so hard for biographies about women to stay on Wikipedia

Entries about women make up less than 20% of bios on Wikipedia, but represent 25% of bios targeted for deletion, according to recent research.

When you search for someone notable on the internet, one of the first things that often pops up is a link to their Wikipedia page. But if you’re looking for a notable woman, that might not be the case.

There are about 1.5 million biographies on Wikipedia. Only about 19% of them are about women. And those that do get published are much more likely to be targeted for deletion, compared to biographies of men.

That’s according to research by Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She wrote about this gender gap in her recent paper, “Ms. Categorized: Gender, notability, and inequality on Wikipedia.”

Tripodi gave me an example of how this disparity plays out online. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Francesca Tripodi: Donna Strickland is a physicist who invented a technology used by high-powered lasers in the world and she was honored with the Nobel Prize in physics in 2018. Now, this made headlines everywhere when she won the Nobel Prize, but didn’t have a Wikipedia page. If you look at the revision history for Donna Strickland, you’ll see that her biography was created in 2014, but it was nominated for deletion and flagged for speedy deletion and shortly erased right after this [it was restored in 2018]. And here is what we really get at when it comes to deletionism as a cultural practice on Wikipedia: There’s definitely a reason to sometimes delete content, right? There can be vandalism, or there could be complications within Wikipedia. But the default to erase notable women rather than simply fix their page is the broader problem that we’re trying to look at here. 

Kimberly Adams: There was another example of this, you highlight the story of Lois K. Alexander Lane, which was flagged for you by a fashion design student. 

Francesca Tripodi stands in a grassy field wearing a pink blouse and white blazer.
Francesca Tripodi (Photo courtesy Tripodi)

Tripodi: For those people who might not know, Lois K. Alexander Lane is a woman who played just an incredible role in memorializing the historic contributions of African American fashion designers. She founded two museums, the Harlem Institute of Fashion and the Black Fashion Museum. She wrote multiple books, she had boutiques. She designed her own clothes, and she also won awards for her prominent role she played in the Black community. What I think is really discouraging about her case is you can tell by data matching that someone tried to create this page during an edit-a-thon, and that when they tried to create this page, someone deemed that Lane was not yet historically notable, and they denied the page for inclusion on Wikipedia [Lane’s page was created in 2016]. So this is a really interesting example, where you have someone who very clearly meets Wikipedia threshold for inclusion, and yet it still seems like it’s not enough for women. You have to wonder, well, when is it enough for someone to get themselves a Wikipedia page?

Adams: Why does that matter?

Tripodi: Well, basically, it matters for a few reasons. The data on Wikipedia also teaches AI systems and are used by Google, Alexa and Siri. So when women go missing from Wikipedia, that absence reverberates, but also, it’s extremely discouraging and frustrating. There are a subset of editors that are really devoted to trying to close this gender gap, so when they have to take extra time out of their day to keep these pages up, that’s an additional labor toll, and also an additional emotional toll on people who are already taking this time as volunteers to make Wikipedia a more equitable place. 

Adams: How much of this is specific to Wikipedia? And how much is a whole of internet problem? 

Tripodi: Unfortunately, I think this is bigger than just Wikipedia. I think women having to manage and create safe spaces for themselves is something we see across platforms. It’s also something we see in physical space as well. There are gyms devoted just for women, because many of us don’t feel comfortable in co-ed spaces. There are many situations in which when women speak up or talk out of place, they are reprimanded for that participation. So, I think a lot of the trouble that we see in my data is definitely indicative of broader problems online, and also a huge problem for women in the workplace more generally. 

Adams: You mentioned that the women editing on Wikipedia, trying to increase the representation of women on Wikipedia, face a lot of emotional burdens and harassment. What did you hear from these editors? 

Tripodi: Many of the women in my study say they like to work in the quiet corners of Wikipedia, so they’re much more inclined to edit on topics or edit on persons, that they, in their words, know are not going to draw a lot of attention to the topic. They do so explicitly, because they just don’t want to open themselves up for targeted harassment when they edit on topics that might cause controversy. But, you also see this in terms of unwarranted attention, so there’s many situations where women get private messages or invitations to engage in non-editorial practices, and that’s really not the reason they’re there on Wikipedia. So, a lot of women in order to avoid harassment, have to be very careful about what they edit, when they edit and what spaces they choose to participate in.

The Wikimedia Foundation said: “We know that articles on Wikipedia are not representative of the impact that women, and BIPOC women in particular, have had throughout history. This imbalance is partly a reflection of the structural and historical inequalities experienced by women around the world. One of the challenges we face is the lack of secondary sources that cover women in the wider media ecosystem. Wikipedia editors rely on these sources including: press, academic research, and educational textbooks. 

Volunteer community groups, such as WikiProject Women in Red and WikiGap, have been instrumental in addressing the gender gap through focused edit-a-thons and outreach to new editors. To complement their efforts, the Foundation launched a campaign this past March during Women’s History Month, called Project Rewrite, to raise awareness and address the lack of source material about women. 

Women editors on Wikipedia have increased by 30 percent over the past year thanks to these volunteer-led initiatives. We know there is still more work to be done, and research like Dr. Tripodi’s is critical to understanding the scope of the issue so we can collectively find ways to address it. We celebrate and support the work of volunteers that are taking on this important issue and the research that helps our movement identify solutions.” 

Jessica Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London, shares an image of a Wikipedia page for scientist Katherine Louise Bouman being considered for deletion.

Related Links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Francesca Tripodi’s full paper has even more examples of how gender dynamics play out on Wikipedia, including how words indicating gender like “wife of” or “married to” show up in the articles.

Glamour and Insider also have stories on the subject, both of which highlight various efforts to increase the number of women’s bios on Wikipedia, including Project Red (on Wikipedia, people’s names that don’t have bio pages yet tend to be linked in red).

And despite its problems, Wikipedia is a model that some say could be replicated in other important fields. For example, a recent piece in The Atlantic argues the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could use a Wikipedia-like format to combat misinformation — some of which is, according to the U.S. surgeon general, a threat to public health.

Correction (July 28, 2021): A previous version of this article misstated Francesca Tripodi’s title. The text has been corrected.

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