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Sunday, 31 January 2016

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Wikipedia turns a sexist 15:

Fun, fantastic and incredibly misogynistic



Jimmy Wales the Wikipedia founder
CREDIT: TELEGRAPH

January 15 marked a momentous anniversary for those of us who believe that the democratisation of knowledge is key to reaching a truly equal society: it was exactly 15 years since Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia.

For people who can still remember a time when the automatic answer to a question wasn't 'Google it', it can seem shocking to take stock of how our attitude towards information has changed since 2001, when Wikipedia seemed like a ludicrous idea that would quickly fall into obscurity.

Proving us wrong, the open-sourced encyclopedia is now the seventh most visited website in the world, with more than five million article pages and an additional 800 created each day. Devastatingly, it's also one of the most gender biased entities in the Western world.

According to its own numbers, Wikipedia currently has more than 27 million registered editors, yet studies show that up to 90 per cent of them are men.

It means that the world's most popular online encyclopaedia has a worrying male skew - and there are plenty of examples to back it up.

Student Emily Temple-Wood discovered one of the most well-known instances of sexism on Wikipedia, identifying more than 4,000 female scientists - including fellows of the Royal Society - who did not have a page on the site, while obscure male scientists had dozens of paragraphs written about them.

She created the Women in science page, and has since continued to work to raise the profile of women in the field on Wikipedia, by drawing attention to scientists including 18th century astronomer Caroline Herschel and biologist Lorna Casselton - who were previously not mentioned.

Even when the articles are there, they are often skewed to reflect gender imbalances. A study conducted by MIT last year showed that in pages about women, gender is overly-emphasised, using an unnecessarily high number of words such as 'female', 'woman' or 'lady'. What's more, there's often an obvious focus on their 'personal lives' and families - not always the case in articles about men.

Had it not been for Amanda Filipacchi's discovery is 2013, we may never have known that female writers were systematically and intentionally being removed from the 'American Novelists' page and moved onto a page titled 'American Women Novelists', even though no gender was mentioned on the page with the male writers.

I can't help but wonder how many other categories have been affected by similar sexist mentalities - or even unconscious bias - without anyone noticing.

Misogyny and discrimination

We trust Wikipedia to be - if not always accurate - at least objective. One might expect misogyny and discrimination on social media comment boards, about subjects such as Gamergate - which saw developer Zoe Quinn and other women in the games industry trolled. But we assume Wikipedia will give us the full story - despite the fact that both sites are populated by content written in its vast majority by young American males (the site's largest demographic is 18-29 year old men).


Wikipedia: 15 on January 15

But when a handful of users edited the Gamergate page to reflect events from a feminist perspective (as opposed to justifying and minimising the impact of the online abuse of women in the gaming industry) they were banned from the site.

Whether this was an intentional act of bias or a genuine mistake is as murky a question as it is irrelevant. For centuries history books have been written by men, research has been conducted by men interviewing other men and talking about what men have done. In a list of 25 best-selling history books of 2014 only two were written by women.

This leads to fewer biographies and academic works being based on the influence of powerful female figures, which in turn means that young women encounter fewer role models to look up to, and are less likely to pursue careers in politics, science or sport, for example. When the UK Government threatens to remove feminism from the A-level politics syllabus (but is forced the backtrack) it becomes blindingly clear that we've got a problem with female representation in history.

Why, then, are we not jumping at the chance to fix the gender imbalance where we can: in the most widely-read, accessible and culturally ingrained information distributor out there? Why are so few women editing Wikipedia?

(At least, to its credit, Wikipedia has a page about 'gender bias on Wikipedia').

When the organisation was faced with its shocking gender imbalance statistic in 2011, it made a pledge to increase its female editor base to 25 per cent by 2015. Yet most recent studies put the number at 10-15 per cent at best. Jimmy Wales, the most well-known face of Wikipedia, has admitted publicly that it had been a failure.

Huge sexism problem

Sue Gardner was the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit that runs Wikipedia) until 2014.

In an article on her blog, published five years ago, she lists the nine reasons she thinks women don't edit Wikipedia, including a lack of time, a generally off-putting atmosphere and less of a predisposition to battle with a not-particularly-user-friendly interface.

But by far the most poignant and worrying of the suggestions was that the editing process often involves dispute and confrontation, which women are less likely to be willing to deal with than men.

This backlash is the reason Lena Dunham has said she no longer checks Twitter. It's partly why Ellen Pao resigned as CEO of Reddit last year.

Simply, tech spaces have a huge sexism problem.In one of the most frustrating contradictions of modern times, the internet is both an incredible vehicle for progress and equality - allowing previously unheard voices to find a space to share experiences and drive change - while also being a place of incredible cruelty towards minorities, with women who speak out mercilessly flooded with abuse and threats.

I have a brother who's 15 years-old. I don't want him to grow up getting all his information from the same white, stale and male perspective that's always been prevalent.

We will never have an internet that treats women with respect until we prove that we're willing to fight for it.

Wikipedia should be our first step in sharing our perspective and proving the importance of female voices - present and past - online.

(This article was originally published in Telegraph UK)

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