In other words

There is much history yet to be made, and Wiki Women are fighting to reduce its gender bias.

Participants in the Wiki Women project gather in Tel Aviv in December (photo credit: TAL DEKEL)
Participants in the Wiki Women project gather in Tel Aviv in December
(photo credit: TAL DEKEL)
At 7 on a cold evening in mid-December, a dozen-and-a-half women (and a few men) gathered in a community center in Tel Aviv to talk, share ideas, discuss problems and solutions and even enjoy a fascinating lecture about the philosophy of science.
This 21st-century version of a feminist “consciousness raising” meeting went several steps beyond merely raising awareness. The celebrants were marking a year of hard work on a project called Wiki Women, one of several projects in the country and around the world whose purpose is to recruit more women for Wikipedia writing and editing, and to lessen the enormous gender gap when it comes to Wikipedia page topics.
Though heated debates occur, there’s one important point that everyone seems to agree on: this gap was not created on purpose. It’s not persecution or hatred of women and women-related topics at all. In fact, there’s a much simpler explanation.
“In my experience, every group looks like its members,” explains Tsipi Erann, Wiki Women’s founder and a feminist activist involved with several other online (and off-line) projects.
“Technological project groups tend to look like the hegemony of the society around them, so in this case the average Hebrew Wikipedia editor would be a Jewish- Ashkenazi man, who is straight, secular, etc. And if that’s what the group looks like, it’s going to be reflected in what it produces, too.”
Dr. Anat Bar Cohen, an active member of Wiki Women, agrees.
“Every person is going to write about what interests them. And if there are not enough women editors, that just means there are not enough editors who might be interested in issues concerning women, like famous women in history, or even diseases and hobbies that tend to be more female.”
During the meeting, Erann demonstrates this idea using the famous metaphor of the three blind men sent to review a brand new concept: the elephant. Each touches a different part of the animal, and describes it accordingly. An elephant is a wall, says the man who touched the animal’s stomach. An elephant is a column, says the one who touched his leg. They’re not wrong – they’re just describing the world as they alone see it, and by doing so, they’re missing out on so much more.
In other words, where a narrow scope and underrepresentation are the problem, a variety of points of view is the solution. And for Wikipedia – Hebrew and in general – a solution is certainly needed.
“Wikipedia is known to be an argument-closer,” says Erann. “People rely on it, they use it, it’s the world’s main source of online information. So if Wikipedia has a gender bias, the entire world is getting gender-biased information.”
This is true for all Wikipedia users, including so-called casual ones: even if you don’t intend to get your answers from Wikipedia, links there will still appear among the top results in almost any search, and that’s a very powerful status for one website to have. That power goes hand-in-hand with a responsibility, not only for truth and accuracy but also for fair representation.
“A couple of years ago I started noticing that sometimes I couldn’t find the women I wanted to read about in Wikipedia. Or I would find a page about them but it would be incomplete, or the wording wasn’t quite right. And that was very frustrating.”
From that frustration Erann’s project was born, first by writing and editing Wikipedia entries herself. Apparently the technical side wasn’t too hard to learn; what was sometimes difficult was dealing with the social codes.
“I got a lot of responses. Some were positive and wanted to help, but some treated me with great suspicion.”
One of her first pages, for instance, was about a feminist activist who had written a book about bisexuality. It was soon deleted for not having “encyclopedic importance.” At first she was devastated; she couldn’t understand what she did wrong, or what about it isn’t important.
“Pages are not just deleted automatically, there’s a whole process of debate and then a vote,” she explains.
“I defended my page and so did other women, but eventually we lost the vote. I looked at the numbers and realized that had we had even just five more women there to vote, the page would have won. So it’s all about presence.”
That realization got the ball rolling.
“As a feminist activist I know all about the female experience online. I know many women encounter a lot of aggression against them and many just don’t want to be there. I looked it up and learned that international Wikipedia has about 90% male editors and 10% female editors, and that things in Israel were only a little bit better – 83% vs 17%.”
ERANN OPENED a Facebook group and invited women to edit and write Wikipedia pages. She would help them, teach them, she promised; all they had to do was join and start writing. She soon found out that her own ideas paralleled those of Wikimedia Israel, the organization running the Hebrew Wikipedia, which was also trying to put an end to the gender gap. Not only that, but it was also a stated purpose of the international Wikimedia organization. Wikimedia was happy to learn about Erann’s project and help her by providing rooms for her classes, prizes for page-writing competitions and so on.
During Wiki Women’s two years of existence so far, Erann has already conducted some six courses, each with eight to 15 participants. There were additional one-time teaching events, each with about 15 participants. The Facebook group itself has about 500 users. Not everyone is necessarily an active Wikipedia editor, she clarifies, as there are different activity patterns in this field. But put together, there are hundreds of women who take or have taken part in enriching the Hebrew Wikipedia with knowledge about women, feminism and related topics. That 17% female editor statistic has risen to 23%, and is still climbing.
According to Deror Lin, a board member in Wikimedia Israel and a super-prolific Wikipedia editor himself, with about 5,000 pages to his name, that climb is an accomplishment on an international level.
“The Wikimedia Israel foundation has been trying to solve this problem for years. We’ve even had a conference just trying to understand what prevents women from becoming editors. Erann cracked it by creating a safe and supportive space for women to work together and learn from each other.”
“There are a number of reasons why women tend not to be Wikipedia editors,” adds Erann. “Generally speaking, they have more things competing for their time. Women are still often in charge of the home and the children, plus they have their careers, too. That means they have less free time, and by the time they can rest, they’re more tired.”
And then there’s the issue of confidence. Girls and women are not as primed for technology as boys and men are; they are also taught to question themselves more, whereas men are expected to be confident.
“I know several women professors who were invited to write pages about their specialties in Wikipedia, and automatically said, I don’t know how, I don’t want to. We’re taught not to trust our own abilities and knowledge. But then you would see these young guys, 17-year-olds, writing in Wikipedia as if they were born for it. But what do they know about these topics? Definitely not more than that professor would.”
THIS GAP is similarly apparent in “editing wars,” where someone might object to a certain change in a Wikipedia page, and the subject is be brought to discussion and even a vote, if the discussion does not suffice.
Erann says (male) editors sometimes respond to feminism-related edits, saying she’s being too dull or incorrect, or just writing about something unimportant. This is not unlike real-world responses to feminism, which is sometimes blamed for dealing with things that “aren’t that important” (important to whom?), or “making a big deal” of something minor (minor to whom?).
The question of whether or not a certain topic even belongs in Wikipedia is the subject of countless arguments the world over. Erann describes herself as an includer; if a topic raises interest, has some demand, why not write about it? Lin takes a slightly different approach. While you might say that space is no issue for an online project (although international servers and maintenance do cost millions), the one resource that is always lacking is people’s time.
“In any particular moment in time, about three editors are working on Hebrew Wikipedia pages,” explains Lin. “A whole lot of work goes into making sure every entry is high-quality and accurate.” The larger Wikipedia becomes, the harder it gets to maintain the quality of its pages, and the bigger the risk of diminishing the site’s credibility.
Still, everyone in the meeting agreed that pages being taken down is not really the issue, and the focus belongs on the many pages that don’t even exist yet. For Wiki Women, representation is a main objective that can already be a first step towards larger social change.
“It’s the same in media,” comments Erann. “In movies and TV, in news panels, there’s no proper representation of women.”
That creates two major problems, as she explains: (1) the same hegemonic voices are heard over and over and begin to sound as if they are more important than all other voices; (2) if children don’t see images like themselves, they might think those professions are just not for them.
At least 450 pages have been written through Wiki Women, and judging by the enthusiasm and commitment shown by the women and men at the project’s end-of-year celebrations, there are plenty more to come.