Wikipedia edit-a-thon events aim to narrow the site's 'gender gap'
In this Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 photo, Maia Weinstock, of Cambridge, Mass., left, a Brown University graduate, works with Anne Fausto-Sterling, of Cranston, R.I., centre, a professor of biology and gender studies, during a Wikipedia "edit-a-thon," on the Brown campus, in Providence, R.I. (Steven Senne / AP Photo)
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, March 12, 2016 3:47PM EST
MONTREAL -- It's one of the world's most popular reference websites, but when it comes to articles about women, even Wikipedia admits it falls short.
The reason is mostly demographic: the site's open editing model means anyone can create articles, but only about 10 per cent of those who do so identify as female, according to the site's last user survey in 2011. Other surveys with different methods put the number between 8.5 and 16 per cent.
To narrow this gender gap, organizers across Canada have joined their counterparts elsewhere in the world in hosting a series of 'edit-a-thons' designed to increase female editorship and to create pages for women who lack exposure, especially in the arts.
"If you only have men, or 90 per cent of the content is being generated by men, then you have a lack of content that speaks to the female experience," said Amber Berson, who co-ordinates the dozen-or-so official events being held across Canada throughout the month of March.
She says this inequality translates to short entries -- or none at all -- on topics relating to feminism, prominent women artists, or activities that are important to women.
The events are run under the umbrella of the New York-based "Art + Feminism" campaign, which was begun in 2013 to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia.
The Montreal events that Berson is hosting include workshops on the history of online gender bias and how to combat it, tutorials on how to use Wikipedia's interface and proper research and citation techniques.
"They want outside sources from reliable sources like published books, major newspapers, radio or television programs, to sort of verify the notability of what you're creating a page for," Berson said.
The events in this country usually focus on making sure female Canadian artists -- a particularly underrepresented segment -- get due recognition on Wikipedia.
During one Montreal event earlier this week, Berson says 32 pages were edited, including those for film director Lynne Stopkewich, artist Ethel Seath and dancer Margaret Dragu. Another event held last weekend had 43 people show up.
Reasons for Wikipedia's gender gap are up for debate, although a hard-to-use interface, an antagonistic climate in online discussions, and women's lack of leisure time are often cited as factors.
A spokeswoman for the Wikimedia foundation says the problem is partly a systemic one linked to a larger online culture that has traditionally been associated with white males.
"We believe it reflects certain systemic biases in our culture, and specifically in online communities," Juliet Barbara said in an interview.
She says the foundation has taken steps to address issues of harassment and abusive language in its talk forums, introduced a number of tools to help new editors, and brought in a 'visual' editor that reduces the need for users to know code.
Barbara says the foundation also provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants each year to community-driven projects aimed at increasing the site's diversity, including the "Art + Feminism" editing events.
She admits that despite all their efforts to encourage female editorship, the foundation doesn't know if the percentage of women contributors has budged, although Barbara pointed to hundreds of new pages about women, including 400 produced during last year's "Art + Feminism" events alone, as a sign of progress.
Berson said anyone who can use the Internet can learn to edit Wikipedia, and says it teaches valuable skills that can be used elsewhere.
"It offers you a skill that you can take to other places in your life, and that is becoming more comfortable with code, being more comfortable online," she said.
"Of course, being able to change pages where you see some kind or bias or untrue information, or adding pages for things that don't exist is an incredible skill in itself."