Thursday, September 2, 2010

Wikipedia's main page mentions nine men for every one woman

The logo of Wikipedia, a globe featuring glyphs from many different writing systems. A registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation.
I just love Wikipedia. I think it's one of the greatest things to happen because of the Internet. It's a source of information that's free to all, that's relatively reliable and in-depth, that's fairly transparent in its editing and resources. Most of the pictures I use in my posts are from Wikimedia Commons. While I often warn students I tutor against using it, it's a great place to get general information on a topic, start research, or just productively procrastinate by learning new things.

The main page, the face that Wikipedia puts out to the world, is a good starting place for browsing and procrastination. I went to that main page at 1 am on Tuesday the 24th of August to look for a female name for some fiction I've been working on.

But to my dismay, I didn't find a single lady on the entire front page. Not one.

Wikipedia, our Library of Alexandria, considered the accomplishments of women so insignificant that they did not merit any mention. Not in the Featured Article, or In the News, or On This Day (profiling history), or Did You Know (highlighting new articles). To look at Wikipedia's main page on August 24, 2010, you would think that men made and did everything, and women had nothing to do with anything.

Was this lack of representation of the ladies a one-time thing, I wondered? Or is this a pattern, a reflection of institutionalized systematic oppression of women known as the patriarchy and more broadly, the kyriarchy?

To answer this question, I looked at ten Wikipedia main pages from the past year, and counted the number of women and men who were mentioned by name.* I used's Wayback Machine for eight of these pages (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.) For the final two, I used the August 24 main page that kicked this project off, and today's page. After studying these ten pages, I found:
  • 15 women appeared total, an average of 1.5 women per page. There were no women for the May 20 and October 27 page, and no more than three women on any other day.
  •  130 men appeared total, an average of 13 men per page.
  • That's a proportion of almost 9 men to every 1 woman.
Nine men to every one woman on a portal that represents the greatest easily accessible store of knowledge is outrageously disproportionate and unacceptable. Wikipedia's under-representation is prime representation of the fact that women are still to this day oppressed, ignored, erased, and marginalized.

From a systematic point of view, it's not totally Wikipedia's fault: the world has been dominated by men, and that's reflected in the records we keep and the people we commemorate. Men still dominate every aspect of society from culture to news to sports to politics and everything in between, and they have since time immemorial. And that's a big part of why Wikipedia, an organization devoted to preserving records and making information accessible, focuses so heavily on men.

But it's not completely about history. Women make up only 13% of Wikipedians (Wikipedia editors, the people who research, write, edit, and maintain these pages - and full disclosure, I was an editor for a few years) - a proportion strikingly similar to the number of women represented on its main page. Men focus on men - upon promoting and constructing articles about people like them. Thus, the main page editors have less women-focused articles to promote to the main page.

But it's not just about the proportion of male to female volunteers. Wikipedia's main page editors could find more pages about women, could promote more woman-focused articles as in need of construction in their editor portal. They could highlight news about women, and new articles about women.

But they don't. Because they don't care about the representation of women. Because they don't care if they're replicating existing power structures, structures which likely favor them. Because they focus on being objective - and as so often happens, objectivity just means a perpetuation the dominant, male, kyriarchal point of view.

But what should Wikipedia do to remedy its chronic, sexist under-representation?
  • First, this isn't a problem that starts with the main page. If Wikipedia wants to make its content less focused on men, it should promote and foster the growth and comfort of female editors like Lise Broer (who contributed several of the featured pictures in my review) .
  • Second, they should make sure that there is always a woman on the main page of Wikipedia. Not including any women on any given day is an act of erasure, pure and simple.
  • Third, they should focus on promoting articles about women for development and construction in their editor's portal, consistently asking editors to spend their time on articles about women. More good articles about women will make more articles about women suited to the high quality expected for pages on Wikipedia's main page.
  • Finally, they should attempt to slowly bring up the proportional representation of women until at least 40% of all the named individuals on the main page on any given day are women.
Facts, information, history and current events were and are not made solely by men, but you wouldn't know that by looking at Wikipedia's main page. Kyriarchy is invested in seeing itself duplicated and perpetuated, and where better to perpetuate the idea that men are the really important people in society than in one of its most authoritative and accessible sources of widely disseminated information? The world is subjective, and Wikipedia's main page editor is choosing to represent a view of the world that is disproportionately focused on men; their reluctance to highlight women is sexist and patriarchal, not objective.

Further reading:
Wikipedia's Gender Gap
Is Wikipedia A Victim of its Own Success?

*Focusing on just men and women is more than a little bit reductive - and since I'm looking at the main page in English, it's US-centric and Western-centric. Men oppressing women is far from the only form of oppression. But I've got time constraints, so I focused on the under-representation that I first noticed. If this post proves popular, I'll return for another look on other axes. 

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  1. Well the foundation has recently started a program to encourage more editing from under-represented groups. Alas resources are limited.

    Trying to make rules that certain things (women, events that happened more than 200 years ago etc) should appear on the main page wont work because of the way it is set up. The various bits of the main page operate separately For the most part. The featured article, picture and did you know? stuff is almost entirely driven by what editors happen to have written of late so there is no practical way of enforcing including stuff about women if no one is writing about them. “In the news” in an attempt to avoid Americano centricism tents to select stories on the basis of body count with a few elections and bits of big science throw in along with a very small number of sporting events. Unfortunately there haven't been many women elected to run countries of late (Julia Gillard, Angela Merkel, err). That just leaves “on this day” which tries to avoid recentism which gives you the problem that there are not that many women recorded driving the most significant events of 500 years ago.

    Promoting articles about women for development and construction is unlikely to work since editors tend to mostly write about they want to write about with little reference to requests by third parties. This means that there is no practical way to get someone who writes about railway stations to start writing about women and related topics. It is somewhat possible to leverage wikipedian's desire to have a complete set of X (X being anything from sports teams in a certain league to victorian warships) to make sure they cover any women who fall within that set but that is about it

    In practice the only way to increase coverage of female figures and related topics on wikipedia is to find a way to recruit new editors who want to write about those subject areas. So far no one has found an effective way of recruiting wikipedians other than seeing who turns up to edit.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, and for the intelligent comment, Gallium. I'm glad to hear of that program, but I pretty strongly feel that if there's a problem, it's because there is little attention or care given to responding to it. I can see how your hypothetical situations might work out as you say, but I still think it's worth implementing, particularly to foster and hopefully attract more editors in marginalized groups.

    The key is clearly upping the number of women (and other marginalized people) actively editing and contributing - without that, you are right to say that none of these efforts will be successful.

  3. It's not entirely hypothetical. Attempts to get editors to shift their focus have been made:

    The impact was fairly limited.

  4. Thanks for the input - as an inactive editor (who was never particularly experienced) I am not really the best person to suggest solutions so perhaps my suggestions to solutions are not the best.

    However, I do stand by my assertion. It is a problem and I do think that fixing it starts with correcting the gender gap in Wikipedians.

  5. This is of course an ongoing problem. I predict that setting an "x% women" rule just won't be accepted, irrespective of whether it's a good idea. Also, Wikipedia has a bit of an annoying male nerd problem. (glances in mirror)

    One idea that occurs to me is to phrase it as an activist problem. Wikipedia gets waves of activists all the time, on hot issues of the day - someone will post a call to action in an activist space, and people come flocking to Wikipedia. What tends to happen is that the most effective ones are those who do things strictly by Wikipedia principles (note I said "principles", not "rules") - their stuff tends to stick. See my recent blog post:

    The other idea is a project specifically to expand topic coverage. We get these in other areas all the time - where a topic area has articles about it created and expanded. A project to write high-quality Wikipedia articles about noteworthy women would work quite well, and recruit those with an interest in furthering such and who have access to good reference sources. Wikipedia's verifiability rules are inherently conservative, but a bit of effort here should go a long way to remedy this systemic bias.

  6. This post is really really good.

  7. I agree with gallium just about across the board. Wikipedia's built on entirely volunteer labour, and it's been consistently found that it isn't fungible. Which strikes at the heart of the matter, the "they" you refer to in your points simply don't exist, at least not in the way you talk about them.

    I do completely disagree with the assertion Men focus on men - upon promoting and constructing articles about people like them. As someone on the evil end of just about every axis of oppression, half the Good Articles I've authored are biographies of women, and my only Featured Article is the biography of a first nations man. It's just how it intersects with my interests (Canadian History, mostly.) But it doesn't matter either way, if one recruited editors interested in women's biographies, or increasing the visibility of women's biographies on Wikipedia, their demographics would be what they are, and it'd sort itself out.

    There's only one way that's ever worked to get anything done on Wikipedia, and that's the advice outlined here: - because of the governance structure, more or less. You have an audience of people interested in women's representation (whatever their demographics), if you want to increase the representation of women, recruit them to do it. I'm more or less retired (burnt out from fighting too many battles against pro-American bias), but if people are interested, I'm happy to help newbies navigate the byzantine organisation. I'm this guy:

  8. I've already conceded that my points are perhaps not the most practical, so let's move away from that.

    David, interesting post. I like your suggestions in your last paragraph. That's kind of what I was trying to get at with my suggestion that women-focused articles be promoted for development.

    Brian, thank you for your perspective and offer to help - perhaps I will take you up on it at some point. However: it's nice that you are the exception, but that doesn't change the vast underrepresentation I'm describing here.

    I'll restate what I said to gallium: I am not particularly concerned about whether or not my specific suggestions are implemented (although I still really do not see why having one woman on the main page every. single. day. is such an unrealistic burden - even making sure that there are 5 on every page would not be unrealistic IMO, given that in my brief survey that there were at least eight and as much as nineteen on any given day). Regardless of how it is accomplished, something can be done, and something must be done. The proportions of representation are unacceptable.

  9. *at least eight and as many as nineteen men.

    I do appreciate y'all better-versed Wikipedians coming in and refining these points, by the way. It's very helpful.

  10. You shouldn't get mired in the "at least one woman a day" argument and similar ones. It dilutes the other good things you have to say. It's just another "affirmative action" deal, a calculated inequality designed to modify things in the short term.

    Work on adding stuff to Wikipedia instead of insisting that some sort of affirmative action criteria is needed. By adding stuff to Wikipedia, you change the reality of what's available. By insisting that women ought to be highlighted more, you are only warping how people see what's already available, which we know isn't enough.

  11. Anoon, please refrain from telling me what I should and shouldn't do. Affirmative action is far from calculated inequality - it's a response to the calculated inequality enforced by the kyriarchy.

    And this is not a job I can do singlehandedly in an environment that's as indifferent to the efforts of women as Wikipedia is. I don't have the time to edit Wikipedia significantly anymore. When I have, I've found it's twice as hard to accomplish what I need to because of the sexist environment there.

  12. @Anoon,

    As a co-mod: Your last comment didn't make it through moderation - for one thing, please avoid descriptors like "lame" as they're ablist language that we'd like to try to avoid.

    As me:
    There are some flawed/privileged premises in your comment, but as it didn't post, pointing them out would be fruitless. I also thought you made some very good points.

    If you'd like to rephrase and try to avoid aggressive and/or ablist language, and try re-commenting, you're welcome to.

  13. Wikipedia is a North American encyclopedia, run for and by North Americans. Those of us in the rest of the English-speaking world have to accept that "notability", the Wikipedian principle, means "notable to North Americans".

    Wikipedia has limitations, extreme ones, but it is useful for looking up information which a North American - especially a white male heterosexual North American - would consider useful or interesting. Anything outside that realm is likely to have been considered "not notable" and deleted.

  14. But they don't. Because they don't care about the representation of women. Because they don't care if they're replicating existing power structures, structures which likely favor them. Because they focus on being objective - and as so often happens, objectivity just means a perpetuation the dominant, male, kyriarchal point of view.

    Talking about "they" obscures what is happening, since "they" are volunteers acting mostly independently from each other. Yes, Wikipedia's principles are about maintaining a "neutral point of view" (NPOV), where "neutral" means the (U.S.) majority POV, which perpetuates the kyriarchy.

    I tried to change Wikipedia from the inside before, but Wikipedian crowd behaviour reflects (U.S) majority-rule as a whole, with a technology slant.

  15. Thanks for the excellent article, Restructure. I appreciate these resources quite a bit.

    Point well taken with "they".

  16. I didn't knew the front page of Wikipedia was edited. I always thought that those lists were randomised by the Wiki engine.

    Anyway, while I do believe that fixing underrepresentation is never a bad thing, I don't think that introducing a quota is a very good idea.

    Doing something about underrepresentation with a quota always works like this:
    You have got the overrepresented set, in this example men, and the underrepresented set, women. Forcing a Quota will, at least partly, manipulate the amount of representation between these two sets. The problem is that both of these sets split up in several other sets. So in the women set there will be an underrepresentation of... lets say women of color. in the set of women of color will be an underrepresentation of cisgendered women of color. In the set of cisgendered women of color there will be an underrepresentation of cisgendered homosexual women of color.
    And so on and so forth. You could play this game for days without reaching an end, simply because every combination of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ancestry, mother tongue and tons of criteria might form a set that is underrepresented in one way or another.

    And if the underrepresentation of one set legitimates the introduction of a quota, then every other underrepresented set has a legitimate right for a quota too. And it is simply impossible to introduce quotas for every single set out there.

    Adding a quota for the men vs women issue might work for now, but only as long as no other set starts complaining.

    ** set is meant in a mathematical way, as in theory of sets.

  17. Yonmei while it's slightly questionable if wikipedia is actually "run" in any meaningful sense (at 3.4 million articles keeping track of what is going on is rather hard let alone controlling it) the large number of non Americans in the closest wikipedia has to senior positions makes your position untenable. Eh even the widespread use of British and commonwealth spelling ( for example) make the claim of north American control highly questionable. You've also got the problem of wikipedia's significant homosexual editor population which has had something of an impact.

    Wikipedia's notability standards such as they exist most derive from the problems of finding citations. There must be enough written about a subject by reliable third party sources to build the article on. The concept of writing relying entirely on citations rather than original research is certainly no north American in origin. Medieval Europe had much the same concept. China certainly used that approach as far back as the 15 century.

  18. I agree that Wikipedia's main page underrepresents women, their history, and their concerns, which was one of the reasons I started contributing several years. I specifically contributed to biographies and articles about women writers to help correct this imbalance (e.g. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Anna Laetitia Barbauld). We have to encourage more people with interests in the areas that are lacking to contribute content - that is crucial. As others have stated, Wikipedians are volunteers - we need to find the volunteers that are interested in writing about women's topics. Recruiting students from Gender Studies classes would be a good way, in my opinion.

  19. I definitely agree with recruiting volunteers, possibly from Gender Studies classes (or the blogosphere!).

    One thing I think that may stand in the way, especially in academia, is the widespread diassociation with Wikipedia and academics. RMJ, for example, even says she won't encourage her tutoring students to use it as a source. At college I was encouraged to look at the bibliographies of books to better find primary source material to use, and I definitely feel Wikipedia is no different in that regard -- a linklist, sort of -- but I was actively DISCOURAGED from using any Wikipedia articles, even in the same indirect way (...but what they don't know won't hurt them). Rather than the Library of Alexandria, which I expect was respected at its time, Wikipedia is viewed as some forbidden pub, debate hall or soapbox.

    However, I had some very, very anti-Wikipedia professors (one had a button with a red circle and slash through the word "wikipedia" on her door o_O) -- and most of them were the ones who would be best equipped to write academic, well-cited articles about strong women.

    Especially weird given the patriarchy involved in the creation and dissemination of "knowledge" and "learning".

    But yeah, I think recruiting academics -- especially professors, but even some students -- might be hard.

  20. Hi, I briefly mentioned your statistics in this week's issue of the Wikipedia Signpost (a community-written news bulletin about Wikipedia matters, on the English Wikipedia):

  21. On the whole, this is an excellent article! To address your third suggestion: I would love to contribute to the women-related articles, but I don't have the expertise, will, or inclination to do it. I'm stuck in my 20th century warship niche. I am sure that it is the same for other people -- writing a "featured article" on a subject you are not passionate about is extremely difficult.

  22. @faye: Feel free to edit my post, so long as you note which parts are edited, to make it acceptable for publication according to your code of conduct. I suggest the alternative "defective" to the word "lame".

  23. The main point I wanted to make, and I reiterate it, is that "affirmative action" is not a good approach. It remains a use of inequality, precisely what I assume you wish to avoid through its use. It is not tenable in the long run.

    Let us imagine a world without any kyriarchy, where people are equal and happy. What must the standards be for such a world? I think that at some point, for equality, you must argue for "neutrality", for "objectivity". If neutrality is unacceptable under your principles, then your principles do not oppose kyriarchies, but rather promote a different kyriarchy with a bias towards women. The goal of any sane feminist should be to promote gender equality. Any stronger effect, biasing society toward women over men, is as bad as the male bias that was opposed, if not worse for the hypocrisy involved. As an aside, I do not know precisely what you in particular believe. I am only making a general statement.

    Wikipedia remains indifferent to the kyriarchy. It supports neutrality, and while that may passively support the status quo, it would be a huge loss to the argument for equality to create a rule that actively built in a bias to women. If, in objective fact, no women have been among the relevant topics of the day, Wikipedia should, on the basis of equality, highlight only the relevant men. This is not because they are excluding women, but because they merely reflect external relevancies. If something ugly is reflected in a mirror, that does not make the mirror itself ugly.

    I suggest involving people with Wikipedia, to write about women, because that path does not require any inequality to promote equality. Wikipedia does not have to create an inequal standard to spread neutral information about important women. Nevertheless, spreading that information may support the cause, because Wikipedia's inclusivity will help change the reality by making information about those women more accessible. That is where the difference lies: enforcing a "minimum women" rule adds an inequality that must eventually be abolished. Merely encouraging writing about women can continue even in an ideal society.

  24. I think recruiting academics to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool is not that hard - there are already many professors that use it (and the Wikimedia Foundation is making a specific push to do this in 2010-2011 through their "Public Policy Initiative"). There is a difference between letting one's students use Wikipedia as a source uncritically and helping them to improve Wikipedia and at the same time learn about its strengths and weaknesses. I teach at the college level myself and I don't let my students use Wikipedia, but I have, on the other hand, crafted assignments that encourage them to contribute and learn about how knowledge is created on the site.

  25. I'm a female Wikipedian who writes about women. I can't do it all. Since Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, the best way to counter this bias is to, you know, jump in. Write an article. Get it featured. Get it on the main page. Do it again. Over and over.

  26. @Faye - that professors disdain Wikipedia shouldn't be surprising, they've spent their lives developing expertise, but also converting that expertise into authority; that they have to throw all that authority away when they enter Wikipedia is a pretty strong disincentive. There are a few professors active there, but they're typically few and far between. Graduate students are entirely different; they've developed expertise but have no corresponding authority, they have to marshal their expertise every time they want to use it in real life, so they're a lot more accepting of having to do the same on Wikipedia. (Caveat: Yes, I'm a graduate student.)

    But for the problem of main page representation, expertise is probably not all that interesting. The (I think?) obvious route to main page representation is the "Did you know ... ?" section, which only requires a few research skills and the ability to write start class articles, along with a little motivation. Having put 21 DYKs and one Featured Article on the main page, the work to make all the DYKs combined was far less than the single featured article. (And only one of the DYKs comes from an area where I have expertise, and the FA definitely does not.)

    And it's a much easier starting point. (Not to pick on Restructure!, but) Trying to rebalance [[Racism]] to give appropriate weight to racism faced by white people is going to be a long, slow, uphill challenge, involving lots of research, arguments, knowledge of policy, and because so many other editors are involved, you're simply not going to get what you want anyhow. Trying to remove the Jyllands-Posten cartoons from said article is a complete nonstarter. But pushing an article like [[Toronto Women's Bookstore]] onto the main page for 6 hours took probably three or four leisurely hours of my time, and apart from maybe incorporating a bit of feedback on the hook, I didn't need to negotiate anything with anybody. It's much more effective.

  27. If you'd like to help address the problems of gender bias on Wikipedia, please join WikiProject Feminism:

    It's a very small project currently and we could definitely use some new contributors!

  28. Well, inspired by this, I went ahead and wrote - and have nominated it for a Today's Didd you know? here: - Any help gussying up/expanding the article a bit, or maybe making a more captivating hook? would be appreciated, but it probably stands on it's own right now. If so, it'll provide ~6 hours of a woman's biography on the main page.

    I think that it provides the easiest and most effectively template of how to increase women's representation on the main page, if one is interested.

  29. Hey there. I think that you have raised a great point. I just wanted to add that the "male nerd problem" can often drive women and minorities away from the Wikipedia. This problem won't be solved until the editors themselves area far more diverse group.

  30. Well, for what it's worth, the article I wrote in response to this spent 6 hours on the main page, generating about 1400 views. So it's certainly possible to address if you motivate people, or dig up motivated people and teach them.

    Still comes back to who "you" is, in this case, I suppose.


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