Rewriting Wikipedia’s gender gap: UO feminists converge for edit-a-thon

Illustration by Mary Vertulfo/Emerald.

Wikipedia has a gender problem.

The site’s governing body, the Wikimedia Foundation, found in a 2011 study that only 9 percent of its editors and fewer than 13 percent of its writers are female. This means the majority of Wikipedia’s nearly 5 million articles  — relied upon by students, researchers and late-night Internet browsers every day — are penned by men.

This skews the site’s content toward men, said Eugene resident and amateur Wiki editor Vicki Amorose. It can mean articles on men are longer and better researched.

“It’s very similar to the way that history is written by the victors. You do not hear the voices of the excluded,” said Amorose. “Certainly it affects the content of Wikipedia when 90 percent of its editors are male.”

Wikipedia is one of the top 10 most frequently visited sites on the web, and 47 percent of its readers are women.

A handful of University of Oregon faculty members, professors and local community members are taking a direct approach by hosting an “Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon” this Saturday, March 5, from noon to 5 p.m. in the A&AA Library in Lawrence Hall.

The goal is to improve upon or create Wiki pages for female artists. It’s organized by the UO Department of Art and UO Libraries.

Although female editors are encouraged to get involved, people of all gender identities and expressions are invited. Tutorials will be provided for beginner Wikipedia editors; anyone interested in participating is encouraged to create a Wikipedia account ahead of time.

The event’s Wiki meet-up page offers a list of pages to be edited, including UO professors whose pages either don’t exist or are a scant few paragraphs.

Art+Feminism is a campaign that aims to add to coverage of women artists, photographers and filmmakers on Wikipedia through these edit-a-thon events, which began in Brooklyn, New York, in 2014. This Saturday’s edit-a-thon is part of an international Wikipedia editing campaign, occurring in dozens of universities and art museums around the globe, including Stockholm, New York and San Francisco.

When Amorose learned of the first Art+Feminism event in 2014, she taught herself how to edit Wikipedia and created a new page for Nuclear Beauty Parlor, an all-female group of artist-activists who protested for nuclear disarmament in 1980s San Francisco.

Amorose, one of the Nuclear Beauty Parlor members, spent two weeks assembling the page and submitted the article for Wikipedia to approve. Eventually, another editor – whose handle was “Radiodude” – deleted it because of “lack of notability.”

“I was like, ‘Radiodude, who are you to tell me this isn’t notable or important?’ ” Amorose said.

Irate and determined, she spent another three weeks looking up archived articles in The Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Examiner about Nuclear Beauty Parlor and returned with 30 more citations for the page. The page was approved soon thereafter.

“So much of this type of history goes undocumented because it was pre-Internet,” she said. “So much is going to get lost if it’s not digitized.”

According to a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota, “There may be a systemic bias against females that cause their edits to be more likely to be reverted (undone) by another editor, particularly early on in their Wikipedia tenure.”

Unlike Amorose, many female authors and editors don’t come back and give it another try.

Mary Brau, a member of Wiki Project Oregon, a statewide collective of volunteer editors, thinks that’s because of a “difference in psychology.”

“Men come back,” Brau said.

Across the world, but especially in Western countries, studies show men have higher self-esteem than women. Women aren’t encouraged to exhibit behaviors associated with success — like risk-taking — so risks like submitting a Wikipedia page for editing don’t come as easily.

Wikimedia’s study reported that “if there is a typical Wikipedia editor, he has a college degree, is 30-years-old, is computer savvy but not necessarily a programmer, doesn’t actually spend much time playing games and lives in U.S. or Europe.”

“I believe we need to understand the origins of our gender gap before we can solve it,” former Wikimedia Foundation executive Sue Gardner wrote in a blog post.

The gender imbalance means that women-centric pages receive relatively minimal handling, while male-related articles can undergo elaborate, comprehensive drafts.

When the researchers at the University of Minnesota analyzed the lengths of Wiki articles edited more heavily by men or women, they found that “the average male article is 33,301 bytes long, the average female article is 28,434 bytes long… ”

But much of the Wiki gap could have more historical roots, as art and architecture librarian Sara DeWaay posits.

DeWaay suggested that the discrepancy is related to women’s historical exclusion from academia; men traditionally wrote art history texts that, in turn, highlighted other male artists.

“That might have to do with why there is still this disparity,” DeWaay said. “Wikipedia has a lot of rules about what types of sources you can use to document entries, so since research on women is so far behind … there are fewer sources we can use to add women on Wikipedia.”

UO’s event focuses on women in art, and includes everything from crime novels to the avant-garde. UO academics like art professor Tannaz Farsi see this as an extension of their work.

Farsi and others have added Wiki articles for the edit-a-thon’s contributors to claim. She wants to build content on Iranian artists Parastou Forouhar, Shirazeh Houshiary and Sara Rahbar. The Minnesota study also found that in 2008, women only made up 10 percent of the editorship of arts-related Wiki articles.

“Narrating their accomplishments and documenting their impact is a means of contributing to my field,” said Farsi. “To be part of the culture of adding knowledge goes hand-in-hand with what we do at the university.”