There are some places where a spot of good old-fashioned sexism seems par for the course. I’m not surprised to discover that three-quarters of the members of the Most Noble Order of the Garter and 85 per cent of incumbent Anglican clergy have XY chromosomes, but in our enlightened digital age it does come as a bit of a shock to find out that over 90 per cent of Wikipedia editors are male, too.
Male, white, and “of a particularly computer-nerd bent of mind”, as the Wiki-Food and (mostly) Women Project puts it, which helps explain why only one in six of the biographies in this, the world’s most democratic repository of knowledge, is female. New York magazine has called it one of the starkest gender gaps in contemporary culture. “The idea that Wikipedia is free and everyone can use it has not translated into who actually uses it,” the project’s director, Carolin Young, notes ruefully when I meet her at a group editing session at the British Library.
This “egregious gender imbalance” is especially notable in matters relating to food, because, as Polly Russell, the library’s curator of food studies, explains, “we’re such a new area of serious study”. Most food throughout history has been cooked by women, “but if you can’t name them, they get forgotten”.
One of the reasons why even contemporary females are woefully under-represented on Wikipedia is that most prominent women regard an encyclopaedia entry as an honour that has to be bestowed on them, whereas men are more likely to assume inclusion as their right. Bee Wilson, chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, which kick-started the project, cites the example of Philippa Glanville, a former chief curator of the metalwork, silver and jewellery department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a world expert on historical dining practices, whose achievements were recognised by the Queen before the online encyclopaedia (“Presumably getting on Wikipedia should be easier than getting an OBE”).
Facilitating this process is the goal of Wiki-Food, which groups academics, students, experts and enthusiastic amateurs with the aim of improving and expanding Wikipedia’s coverage of food-related topics, especially but not exclusively those relevant to women, with support from Wikipedia.
This is very welcome, given the difficulties contributors cite in adjusting to the Wikipedia mindset: secondary sources are all that count for the online encyclopaedia, which can be tricky, as both women and food play so little part in recorded history. One solution is encouraging interested parties, particularly those experts who might be put off by the technical side of participation, to publish elsewhere on potential subjects, thus providing material for future “editathons”.
All concerned express a certain satisfaction in moving from being a passive consumer of Wikipedia to what Young describes as an “active user”, but as I chat with members of the small group during their tea break, there is a clear sense of intellectual excitement, too. There are people researching entries on everything from legendary hostesses of the Roaring Twenties to post-partum feeding practices in modern-day China. As Russell puts it, channelling Donald Rumsfeld, it’s a thrilling glimpse of “things I didn’t know I didn’t know existed”.
Which is what Wikipedia is all about: catching those precious crumbs of information that would otherwise have fallen down the cracks in the sofa of history. The glory of the internet is that there’s room for everyone, from Ainsley Harriott to Mrs Beeton, and hunter-gatherers to Heston Blumenthal. If only we could say the same for the real world.
Next week: Nina Caplan on drink
This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster