LONDON—Polish/French physicist and chemist Marie Skłodowska Curie, born 150 years ago, not only was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903) but she was also the only woman to have ever won it twice (again in 1911) and the only person to have won a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. A pretty impressive feat especially for her time. However, interestingly, in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-1911), the only reference to her groundbreaking research into radiation—her prolonged exposure to it eventually lead to her death from aplastic anemia in 1934—was listed as an achievement under the entry for her late husband, Pierre. These days, of course, she is considered one of the pioneers of 20th century science, she has had a university named after her and ironically, among the general public it is her name—not her husband’s—that gets more recognition.
While increasingly more and more women from history are becoming recognized for their own abilities and contributions—the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” is a great example of women who went unnoticed for their work in the sciences—the gender gap in the 21st century’s most used encyclopedia, Wikipedia, still very much exists, with biographical entries and articles about women only accounting for about 16% of the English-language Wikipedia site. In December 2016, in an attempt to not only get more women interested in becoming Wikimedia editors –colloquially known as Wikimedians—but also to add more biographies and articles on women, Wikimedia U.K. (the national charity that supports and promotes Wikipedia and its sister projects) along with the BBC’s 100 Women project, hosted the #100womenwiki day. Lucy Crompton-Reid, the CEO of Wikimedia U.K., played a huge role in that coordinated effort, which saw over 3,000 new entries submitted from across the globe with simultaneous events in cities including Cairo, Kathmandu and Jerusalem. Ms. Crompton-Reid, who previously worked for the House of Lords, Arts Council England and the British Refugee Council, discussed with she-files the importance creating gender parity on the world’s most popular encyclopedia. EXCEPTS:
BROWNELL MITIC: How did the #100womenwiki day come about—which was promoted and carried live on BBC World Service?
CROMPTON-REID: The impetus originally came from the BBC. The journalist who was looking into it became aware of this gender gap on Wikimedia, so she contacted us. And we started talking on how the Wikimedia movement might be able to support 100 Women, both in terms of physical, in-person projects where we could train people to edit, but also in terms of raising awareness in a number of things. Firstly, of the gender gap, but also raising awareness of the just the fact that it is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit so to encourage more people to become editors.
If I remember correctly only about 16% of Wikipedia’s English site are biographical entries and articles about women—that really surprised me.
That project was about raising awareness but there is really a whole range of international projects including, in particular, Women in Red, which is about the content gap on Wikipedia and moving the needle in terms of that percentage. And it is doing so successfully. One of the difficulties on English language encyclopedia, where there are over five million articles, is to increase the percentage of biographies of women—with each percentage point representing thousands of articles. In November 2016, 16.71% of the biographies on English Wikipedia were about women, whereas now it’s 16.83% as of January 29. So that work is happening and lots of the editors all around world—male and female—are focused on improving coverage of women in terms of that content gap. In terms of the editor gap it is much harder figure to be clear on because people do not have to declare gender when they register as users. We also know that roughly 13-23% of editors identify as women on Wikipedia.
Is the English language Wikipedia the largest of the sites?
So there are 40-odd million articles on Wikipedia and the English language Wikipedia is far largest with over five million. What is really interesting is that the Welsh Wikipedia has now hit gender balance, which has been hugely driven by Wikimedia U.K. and our program manager in Wales who has been really focused on that gender gap issue. And it’s a much smaller encyclopedia, they have about 90,000 articles, punching pretty much above its weight in terms of the size of the community.
Why do we still have this gender imbalance in 2017?
There are different reasons for it. In terms of the biographies, it is systemic bias. That is not something unique to Wikipedia, or indeed to the internet; it is something reflected across our society and that is the bottom line. And women have historically been sidelined and marginalized. So what you find is that women generally have been less able to carve out roles for themselves outside of the home, which would give them the opportunity to become notable. So that is one really key thing. The other issue is that even when women have been clearly notable in terms of their achievements, they have actually been marginalized in traditional encyclopedias, like Marie Curie. Wikipedia is ultimately a source aggregator and therefore if the reference materials don’t exist about women it becomes very challenging for the encyclopedia to have that sort of gender neutrality that we are striving for.
Since January 21 with the Women’s March on Washington, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren being banned from speaking on the Senate floor and so on, has there been an uptick in entries on women and women’s movements?
I really hope that that cascades into online representation of women. What was interesting was the conversation and the discussion around the coverage of the women’s marches on Wikipedia and Wikimedia comments on capturing videos of people talking. I very much identify as a feminist so I would really hope some of the terrible rolling back of women’s rights being threatened [does] translate into improved online representation and improved representation of women everywhere.
What is the Women in Red Project?
The project was founded by an amazing Wikipedian called Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight and male editor Roger Bamkin because they recognized this need to improve coverage about women. It is about improving and adding women and their work. So it not just biographies, but also about what women have written, what films they have produced, the whole thing. So the content gap isn’t just about biographies, but biographies is an easy way to demonstrate that it exists. They are pretty amazing, a virtual community across the world. And the point being red as red link on a Wikipedia article means there is no link. So it is about turning those red links into blue ones where appropriate. There are still many women who would meet the notability criteria but don’t appear yet on the encyclopedia.
What do you have coming up that will also help move the gender needle forward?
Another big Wikipedia gender initiative is Art+Feminism, an annual worldwide edit-a-thon to add content to Wikipedia about female artists. Art+Feminism began in 2014 with 30 events and has grown from there, with Wikimedia U.K. participating for the first time in March 2016 with events at nine different art institutions around the country including Tate, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Art+Feminism 2017 is coming up in March [taking] place on and around International Women’s Day.