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9 January 2019updated 04 Oct 2023 10:26am

From Chinese spies to award-winning geologists, we’re making women visible on Wikipedia

Just 3,541 Wikipedia editors are considered “very active”, and very few of them are female. But this can change. 

By Ewan McAndrew, Siobhan O’Connor, Sara Thomas and Alice White

Recently, physicist Dr Jess Wade was named in Nature’s ten people who mattered in 2018. Wade hit the headlines for creating more than 450 new articles on Wikipedia in the last 12 months. This is impressive, certainly, but the reason her efforts got so much attention was because the world was shocked by the severe lack of gender diversity on the online platform that she was trying to correct. Wade explained:

“The majority of editors are white men… So many young people use [Wikipedia] as the sole source of their information… They go to Wikipedia first when they’re looking something up. And I don’t want that to be an incredibly biased view of the world… the people that you read about will be men. And that really frightened me.”

Wikipedia, the free, online, multilingual encyclopedia turns 18 this month. It receives over 500 million views per month (and that’s just the English version). As topics on Wikipedia become more visible on Google, the most dominant search engine, they receive more press coverage and become better known amongst the public. Other companies, such as Facebook, Youtube and Amazon, also draw on Wikipedia as a source of information for services they provide. Wikipedia subtly influences how we think and behave. But Wikipedia has significant information gaps. Less than 18 per cent of biographies on English Wikipedia are about women.

Take the “History of Chemistry” entry on Wikipedia, which features over 200 men but only mentions four women. It’s missing notable female chemists such as Nobel Prize winning biochemist Gerty Cori and Professor Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and one of the pioneers of a new breakthrough genetic engineering technology called CRISPR. In the entry for “Benzene” on Wikipedia, there are several paragraphs describing many male scientists who tried to discover the structure of this chemical compound in the 1800s. Only one sentence in the same article acknowledges the female scientist, Kathleen Lonsdale, who finally confirmed the structure of benzene in 1929.

Often, even where articles exist, the contributions of women in science are reduced to bit-parts in articles on their husbands or male contemporaries. Marie Curie’s Wikipedia article reportedly started out shared with her husband (eventually, it seems, someone figured out her scientific contributions might just warrant an article of her own).

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Wikipedia matters because of the extent to which we rely upon it. It’s the fifth most-viewed website in the world, and even people who don’t think they’re using Wikipedia probably are. According to 2011 figures in the book Google and the Culture of Search, Google processed over 91 per cent of searches internationally, and Google relies upon Wikipedia. Adrienne Wadewitz, an American feminist scholar, noted the importance of improving Wikipedia to help improve our collective knowledge:

“Google takes information from Wikipedia, as do many other sites, because it is licensed through a Creative Commons Share-Alike license. Those little boxes on the left-hand side of your screen when you do a Google search? From Wikipedia. The information that is on Wikipedia spreads across the internet. What is right or wrong or missing on Wikipedia affects the entire internet.”

The lack of diversity of Wikipedia is problematic for far more reasons than unsatisfied curiosity. Recent research published last year by Dr Neil C. Thompson at MIT and Dr Doug Hanley at the University of Pittsburgh shows that scientific research is actually shaped by Wikipedia, which demonstrates the influence of the free encyclopaedia.

“Our research shows that scientists are using Wikipedia and that it is influencing how they write about the science that they are doing… Wikipedia isn’t just a record of what’s going on in science, it’s actually helping to shape science,” Thompson concluded.

Currently though, it’s shaping our world by giving the impression that women don’t participate in science. A recent example of this came to light when Dr Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018. She became only one of three women ever to do so. And yet her Wikipedia page was rejected earlier that year by moderators who felt her contribution to the field did not warrant a biography on the online encyclopaedia, primarily because the sources cited in the initial draft article did not at that time establish her notability. This has since been rectified in subsequent drafts (view her page here) but it highlighted how far Wikipedia depends high quality secondary sources, and raises the question of whether enough is being done to create these secondary sources in the first place.

The disproportionate information gap on Wikipedia silences women’s contribution to science and continues their marginalisation in public life, a vicious circle that leads to more women being lost to careers in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This gender imbalance mirrors the 2017 findings of the Wise campaign: women make up just 23 per cent of those in core Stem occupations in the UK. Only 17 per cent of physicists worldwide are women and studies have shown that it will take approximately 258 years for equality in physics. The rate of progress is even starker for the fields of computer science (280 years).

Some have attributed the lack of articles on women to the lack of women editors. Though there are over 130,000 regular contributors to Wikipedia. Of these, only 3,541 are considered “very active”. That’s the equivalent of the population of a small village like Pitlochry in Scotland trying to curate the world’s knowledge. And very few inhabitants of that village are women. Surveys have indicated that only 8.5-16 per cent of Wikipedia editors are female and a 2011 survey found that fewer than 1 per cent of editors self-identified as transsexual or transgender. This means that articles typically reflect offline gender, socioeconomic and cultural biases.

The Wikipedia community has established numerous initiatives to address this acknowledged systemic gender bias, such as “WikiProject Women in Red (WiR)”, which aims to crowdsource articles on women, and holding “edit-a-thons”, where people learn to edit in a social and supportive setting and create new pages on underrepresented topics. This focused attention has shifted the percentage of female biographies in the right way: up 2-3 per cent in the last three years to 17.79 per cent. At this rate of change however, Wikipedia needs many more contributors like Jess Wade in order to achieve gender parity. New articles recently created by volunteer editors from around the world include: Zheng Pingru, a spy whose life inspired a film; Bridget Jones (academic), a pioneer in the field of Caribbean literature studies; and Paquita Sauquillo, a campaigner in defence of democratic freedom. Entries recently improved by Women in Red editors include: Ruth Schmidt, an award-winning American geologist; and Wilma Mankiller, an activist and social worker who was the first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Some institutions have gone a step further and hosted a Wikipedian in Residence to help train people and facilitate sharing knowledge about underrepresented people and topics beyond their own buildings and platforms. This has additional benefits. By improving the visibility and awareness of women role models, and their achievements, in the online world we can create more inclusive, more diverse, more representative, more empowering physical environments to help breed confidence and undo the negative impact this lack of representation engenders. As Jo Spiller and Sarah Moffat note in the Open Access ebook, EqualBITE: Gender equality in higher education published in 2018:

“Meanings are projected not just by the buildings themselves, but by how they are furnished and decorated. And where almost every image –portrait, photograph, statue – of academic achievement and leadership is masculine (and nearly always white middle-aged), the meaning is clear: to be a successful leader, gender and ethnicity matter.

The visibility of women role models matters. Given that the number of “very active” Wikipedia editors on English Wikipedia remains village-sized, the importance of encouraging and empowering a diversity of editors to engage with Wikipedia editing is crucial in terms of increasing the visibility of inspirational female role models online to, in turn, encourage and empower the next generation of women in Stem whose scientific breakthroughs can continue to shape our world for the better.

Siobhan O’Connor is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Ewan McAndrew is Wikimedian in Residence at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Alice White is a Digital Editor at Wellcome Collection, and Dr Sara Thomas is Scotland Programme Co-ordinator for Wikimedia UK. If you’re feeling motivated to contribute, create a Wikipedia account today and join WikiProject Women in Red.

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