Blog Post

Wikipedia is pushing the boundaries of scholarly practice but the gender gap must be addressed

[Cross-posted from Impact of Social Sciences]

Wikipedia is the largest reference work the world has ever created. It is the sixth-largest website in the world. It is the most visited reference work on the internet. It is available in over 285 languages. If you want to affect how the world understands a particular topic, you must edit Wikipedia.

As academics, we already possess many of the skills necessary to be excellent writers of encyclopedia entries: specialized knowledge and finely-honed research and writing abilities. It is incumbent upon us to share our knowledge with the world, where it will be read not only by our fellow academics but by anyone curious about our topics.

The gender gap: every edit is political

Wikipedia bills itself as “the free encyclopedia and anyone can edit” – but not everyone does. Approximately 90% of Wikipedia’s editors are male. For Wikipedia, this has resulted in problems of bias, overrepresentation/underrepresentation of topics, and an environment hostile towards female editors. A lack of diversity amongst editors means that, for example, topics typically associated with femininity are underrepresented and often actively deleted. In one publicly reported example, an article about Kate Middleton’s wedding dress was deleted. This is part of a larger trend. WikiProjects, which organize Wikipedia’s content around topics to mobilize its editors, show the level of interest in a topic. The most organized and successful WikiProject is Military History while projects like Textile Arts languish. In many ways, Wikipedia suffers from the same exclusionary problems of the Encyclopédie of old.

Every edit on Wikipedia is political. While Wikipedians pride themselves on remaining objective and neutral, it is impossible to remain so and the presentation of contemporary events puts this into high relief. In February 2012, Sandra Fluke testified before Congressional Democrats about women’s reproductive rights, for which she was viciously attacked by Rush Limbaugh. Within four days of her testimony, a Wikipedia article was created for her. This is one of Wikipedia’s strengths – its ability to be up-to-date. However, within five minutes of being created, the article was nominated for “speedy deletion” for “no indication of importance” (this process allows Wikipedians to delete obvious spam articles). It remained an article, passing this test, but was nominated two hours later through a more rigorous deletion process, in which Wikipedians would debate the merits of the article for a week. Fluke was considered non-notable or notable only because Rush Limbaugh had attacked her. In the end, her biographical article was merged with the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy article. For three and a half months on Google, the first Google hit for Sandra Fluke’s name was Wikipedia’s article on the controversy. At that time, the Sandra Fluke article was recreated and she was deemed notable enough to have her own article.


Wikipedia’s rules are not neutral or objective, however much Wikipedians may wish them to be – they have very real political consequences. For three and a half months, Wikipedia allowed Sandra Fluke to be defined by Rush Limbaugh’s wildly inappropriate and derogatory comments, rather than by her own life story, and helped fuel an irrelevant news story. This is one small example of how every choice Wikipedia editors make on the encyclopedia shapes the world’s knowledge and thus who is editing the encyclopedia is of paramount importance.

The gender gap and its concomitant effect on the content and structure of the encyclopedia has caused a recent upsurge in efforts to recruit more women to edit Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation, for example, hired a fellow specifically to work on this problem for a year. But there have also been grassroots efforts and the #tooFEW edit-a-thon on March 15 was part of this. During this event, the THATCamp Feminisms West, East, and South hosted edit-a-thons. Moreover, as news of the edit-a-thon spread, other locations (mainly in the United States) started their own editing sessions and individuals made time in their day to add to Wikipedia’s coverage of women.

The root of all knowledge

During the edit-a-thon, the question of notability and verifiability was raised frequently. Wikipedia has a “notability” policy that determines who and what can have an article. While Wikipedia includes articles about many more topics than a traditional encyclopedia, it does not include articles about any topic. Over the years, Wikipedia’s notability guideline has evolved quite a bit. Wikipedia did not have a solid notability guide until 2007. This is important to remember – Wikipedia’s policies, like everything on the site, evolves and changes as the community changes (if you want to follow the changes, click on the “view history” tab at the top of the page). In general, a topic is notable if it has been covered in reliable sources independent of the subject. What this means in practice, of course, is that Wikipedia should be fundamentally conservative in the sense that it is only publishing information that has been published before. However, because Wikipedia accepts a variety of reliable sources (while still privileging peer-reviewed sources), such as newspapers and blog posts, there are ways in which the encyclopedia is pushing against the boundaries of established scholarly practice.

While academics may see Wikipedia’s rules as restrictive and prescriptive (and in certain contexts they certainly can be), Wikipedians themselves are constantly working to adjust the rules. For example, at Wikimania 2012 (the conference for all things Wikipedia), there was a panel on “Wikipedia in the Twitter Age”, which specifically raised the question of the reliability of different kinds of information and which forms Wikipedia privileges and why, using the 2011 Egyptian revolution as an example of when the most reliable information came from Twitter.

There is nothing more essential than seeing that these policies on Wikipedia are evolving and that if we as feminists and academics want them to evolve in ways we feel reflect the progressive politics important to us, we must participate in the conversation. Wikipedia is a community and we have to join it.

Join us!

Those of participating in the #tooFEW edit-a-thon ended the afternoon by discussing how one could be a feminist activist on Wikipedia. Our ideas included everything from adding content on women to reviewing articles other Wikipedians have written to helping shape guidelines for WikiProjects to using Wikipedia in the classroom.

What Wikipedia chooses to include is shaping what we remember and value about our culture. It is important that as academics we do not absent ourselves from these debates. Wikipedia, like the Encyclopédie, will define what knowledge is for generations. Join us in shaping the world’s knowledge!





What an important post. Thanks you for this. The Wikipedia gender gap is a pretty dire statistic -- one that begs for analysis -- but I’m hesitant to agree without qualification that the way to both understand the gap and to right this wrong is through more editors. (“It is incumbent upon us to share our knowledge with the world”). Of course, it is important for this go-to online resource to be as complete as possible -- given it is often at the top of every Google search result (which I don't think is something that we should let slide without analysis). A broader cross-section of editors – trained in wikistorms (!!) – may well improve content. Agree: Yes! Every edit is political! But, it’s possible that bringing more women and people of color on board – to work for free -- won’t actually solve some of the tricky political frictions that bubble up around citations, notability, and algorithmic searching (e.g. S. Fluke's page at the top of Google search results). So a question that’s been grating at me for some time is how this particular form of volunteerism (free labor) became (and remains) the guiding ethos for making free knowledge. What is assumed in encouraging the free labor of editors? How does this particular varient of volunteerism shape participation and knowledge? Following your initial questioning of the ideological perimeters of Wikipedia (e.g. neutrality and objectivity), can we further theorize the Wikipedia gender gap by deepening your analysis and asking what it means to “shape the world’s knowledge” and make accessible knowledge under the banner of volunteerism? I don’t have answers, per se, but these are questions I’ve been mulling over -- (we spoke about this a bit at a Wikistorm last October) -- and I’d be curious how you’ve thought through and continue to think about these questions about principles. 


Thanks so much for your thoughtful response! This post was meant more as an introduction to the problem and your comment has made me think about doing a follow up that delves more deeply into the issues we've talked about. The question about free labor is somoething that concerns me in particular and came up again at another panel I was at. One participant suggested that women were actually being savvy in not contributing their free labor to Wikipedia because they were refusing to be taken advantage of but, of course, the flip side of that is that the knowledge and perspectives they would have brought to the site is added in lesser amounts. In many ways, I don't think that we can afford to let a site like Wikipedia go forward without substantially changing its userbase because it is so crucial in shaping the world's knowledge. While we might want to change the underlying structures of knowledge production that legitimate knowledge, that might have to happen in other places. But Wikipedia is literally where billions of the world's people are going to get information. We can't leave that source up to chance.


Hi Monika, I've been a Wikipedian for several years and I strongly support the gender-gap efforts, but I'm also concerned about the issue of persuading women to work for free, often in trying circumstances. It has become particularly pressing of late because paid editors have started arriving at Wikipedia in large numbers, including PR agencies and multi-nationals, and they are being to some extent welcomed by the community, rather than asked not to edit the articles they're connected to. Therefore, to ask more women to join us as volunteers just so they can donate their free labour alongside these paid editors is ethically very tricky.

It's an issue people don't want to grapple with because the push from the Wikimedia Foundation is to attract more editors regardless, and without more editors Wikipedia will not continue, so of course in one sense they are right. It makes those of us who are uneasy about the ethics of outreach feel awkward about speaking out, but the issue does need to be addressed. I keep wondering: would I advise any woman or girl that I love to get involved with Wikipedia?


I have no words for the move that was made by Wikipedia editors and documented in Salon this week: "'American women novelists' segregated by Wikipedia: Wikipedia's Overwhelmingly Male user-editors began to enforce the bizarre forced gender migration on Tuesday."

I reacted on my facebook page, "Is this a response to our amazingly mulititudinous #toofew contributions?"

Folks, let's start the repatriation.


Forgot to link.


Happily, this situation is not that dire. The Wikipedians there have almost universally rejected the proposal with strong language. I would like to point out that a "American women novelists" category would have been useful, though. 1) Once the category exists, you can search for poorly developed articles easily, so it would be easy to improve articles on women. 2) Women writers are studied as a category, so creating such a knowledge category reinforces that women's studies is a field of study on Wikipedia and in the world. 3) It makes it easy to create intellectual links between women throughout history as you browse through the category (imagine doing a paper). However, the category battles on Wikipedia are hard to win because the system is anything but consistent. It changes constantly and the decisions are made by lots of people. I've long ago given up caring about the categories - I consider it a battle not worth fighting at the moment, since there are many more significant battles on the site.


I searched for and have been recategorizing. Thanks so much for weighing in, Adrianne. 


i've been following this issue closely & have a couple of comments:

1. there has been confusion in the media that I think persists here between a "category" and a "list." "categories" are not really designed to be viewed as independent wikipedia pages, but show up at the bottom of a page to show what groups a page belongs to. This is important because it has obscured that fact that the main Wikipedia page for American novelists is actually "List of Novelists from the United States," and this page has always been heavily populated by women as well as men and there is no effort to take women off of it: I point this out because what is being discussed in the media controversy is not quite as central as the coverage would suggest--"categories' are not a heavily-used or heavily-relied-upon part of Wikipedia, for the most part, although they may become that in the future.

2. Categories are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, I do not recommend and most of the editors who are voting on the discussion page ( do not appear to recommend "recategorizing" women writers *out* of American Novelists and *into* American Women Novelists (or Writers). Most editors, including me, are suggesting that both categories be kept, and that the editor who is zealously taking women out of the "American Novelists" category be reversed. That is, US Women novelists should have entries in *both* the American Novelists and American Women Novelists categories, and both of these will show up at the bottom of a page for the given author.

3. It seems advisable to wait for the community decision (and to weigh in on that decision!) before taking action, as actions taken prior to that decision are likely to be undone by whatever decision is made. Right now there appears to be overwhelming support for the proposal I've outlined above (putting women back into American Novelists, but also keeping American Women Novelists.