Sexism on Wikipedia: Why the #YesAllWomen Edits Matter

#YesAllWomen
#YesAllWomen

The Wikipedia page for #YesAllWomen, a record of an anti-sexism online protest movement, is being edited to make it “less misandrist.” This Wiki page documents the Twitter hashtag that is being used internationally by women to share their experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination following the Isla Vista mass shooting in America. Some men are using this tag to listen and support women, but predictably, others are abusing it to hurt women and argue that the hashtag is “sexist against men.” The Wiki edits matter because Wikipedia has a massive problem with sexism. These edits reflect the very issues of gender violence, intimidation and power that the #YesAllWomen hashtag is trying to address.

Gender Bias in Wikipedia

Between 8% to 13% of Wikipedia editors are women. The Wikipedia Foundation recognises the public encyclopaedia is skewed towards men. It seeks new ways to entice newcomers, because both recruitment and retention of women is an ongoing challenge. Specifically, its surveys reveal “systemic bias” in the “average Wikipedian,” who is an English-speaking male form a Christian-majority country, in a developed nation in the Western hemisphere, technically inclined, well educated, aged 15–49 and employed as a white-collar worker or they are otherwise a student. For a universal open access project, Wikipedia fails on every measure of diversity: geographic, linguistic, racial, sexuality, economic, and of course gender. There are projects set up to address these short-comings, but the problems are very far from being resolved. The issues are socio-cultural, rather than technical.

Many of Wiki women have spoken out about how their entries are often edited by men in malicious ways, using sexist, racist, homophobic and violent language (trigger warning). Wikipedia finds this is driven by its “conflict-oriented culture” which forces women to leave as they are treated aggressively by male editors. A Wiki study reports:

“Unexpectedly, we find that female editors are more concentrated in areas with high controversy… and are more likely than males to draw corrective actions from fellow editors… In summary, the available data indicate that female editors experience more adversity than male editors in all the areas that we studied.” [My emphasis]

Sexism on Wikipedia
“The available data indicate that female editors experience more adversity than male editors”

Sexism

Sue Gardner, the former Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation (she left the position last month), has written several times on Wikipedia’s lack of gender diversity. In 2011, she noted that various studies and articles have found that registered women editors tend not to contribute much writing. Some of them say it’s due to Wiki’s interface, but overwhelmingly, it is due to Wikipedia’s sexist culture, specifically, feeling “intimidated by the tone of the discussions.” Women editors are put off by having to muster the energy to get “into fights with dudes.” Women don’t want to invest the little leisure time they have only to have their work undone by sexist men. One woman editor says:

“I used to contribute to Wikipedia, but finally quit because I grew tired of the “king of the mountain” attitude they have. You work your tail off on an entry for several YEARS only to have some pimply faced college kid knock it off by putting all manner of crazy stuff on there such as need for “reliable” sources when if they’d taken a moment to actually look at the reference they’d see they were perfectly reliable! I’m done with Wikipedia. It’s not only sexist but agist as well.”

Another woman reflects on her experience writing about gender violence:

“the Wikipedia entries on the Violence Against Women Movement and Act were very misleading, incorrect in some cases, and slightly sarcastic and minimizing to the work of women rights advocates. Every time an advocate would try to make corrections and update the entries, it would be removed and edited back to it’s original misleading version. I think many advocates felt like it was pointless to try and change it-or didn’t have the same kind of time and energy around it that these majority male editors have to maintain sexist and incorrect posts.”

Under-representation of Women

Support The Royal Society's Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. By STEM Women
Support The Royal Society’s Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Via STEM Women

Wikipedia sexism is also reflected in the lack of entries on women professionals and historical figures, including women scientists. STEM Women, which I am a part of, supported the Royal Society’s Wikipedia hack-a-thon. The annual event highlights the lack of Wikipedia articles about notable women scientists.

The issue is not just about editing – it is about the basic topics that women want to cover on Wikipedia which relate to women’s issues broadly defined: prominent women figures, women’s interests, and women’s knowledge. To be blunt, the gender inequality on Wikipedia is about a power struggle over gendered knowledge.

Knowledge and Power

An illustration of White male privilege. Via Pinterest.
An illustration of White male privilege. Via Pinterest.

In sociology, we see that the acquisition, communication, reproduction and debates about information are influenced by socio-economics, including gender. On Wikipedia, the very act of writing about women or women-related themes is seen as political (“controversial”) and this automatically attracts hostility and excessive-editing. While men will argue with other men on Wikipedia pages, the pages written by women about women draw relentless negative attention.

As male views are dominant, they are not seen as gendered. Being male is the default. As it is seen as normal, and men’s presence is nothing out of the ordinary, male writing is perceived to be value-free. When a woman writes about women, it is contentious simply because her gender makes her knowledge and presence conspicuous. If a woman writes about women’s issues, she must automatically be biased – or so goes the sexist argument. When a man writes about other men, men’s issues, interests and topics, he is presumed to be objective by virtue of his gender.

Women’s knowledge on Wikipedia is Other; that is, it is different and therefore suspect and it invites furious edits and deletions simply because the average Wikipedian male sees that women don’t belong in their space. Women are threatening merely because they want their knowledge to be represented in a male field, Wikipedia, which is actually supposed to represent humanity. A loud and busy segment of Wikipedia men want women erased, silent and otherwise passive. They position women as merely observers of history, even when it involves them. This is how history has largely constructed women’s knowledge, as Other and subservient to men’s perspective, as Simone de Beauvoir famously argued in The Second Sex:

Simone de Beauvoir Woman as Other The Second Sex

The issue with this latest edit frenzy on the #YesAllWomen Wiki page is further evidence of the misguided move to support so-called “reverse sexism,” a nonsensical term I wrote about recently in reference to the “not all man” defence” (see below). Women speaking out about sexism is not an act of sexism. Sexism describes institutional inequality that benefits some groups over Others. It requires social power, which men collectively hold, even if they don’t want to acknowledge these structural benefits.

#YesAllWomen is about creating safe spaces for women. Some men understand this; unfortunately many do not. Astronomer Phil Plait argues that this hashtag is an opportunity for men to reflect about the problems with masculinity, violence and entitlement. It symbolises the need for men to listen to women, not react defensively. He argues: “We men need to do better”:

Even though we may not be the direct problem, we still participate in the cultural problem. If we’re quiet, we’re part of the problem. If we don’t listen, if we don’t help, if we let things slide for whatever reason, then we’re part of the problem, too.

The Wikipedia page on the #YesAllWomen movement documents this global conversation about women’s experiences of masculine violence. Acts of gender violence reflect institutional problems with the way gender is constructed,enacted and socially enforced. Men who are editing this page say they want to use “more neutral” language. In actuality, they are simply defending their own social privilege on a platform that already favours men. In so doing, they contribute to more of the same gender violence that the #YesAllWomen dialogue was set up to explore and tear down.

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Notes

Image 2 text: What’s wrong with this picture? Professor Julia Slingo is Chief Scientist at the Met Office in Britain. Yet she merits only a few paragrpahs on Wikipedia. Support The Royal Society’s Wikipedia Edit-a-thon 4 March 14. Help spread Awareness of Women Scientists.

Image 3 text: [White male cartoon angry points to a blackboard with writing, saying, “OMG! This is totally unfair TO ME!” Text reads] “Times people cared about White men’s feelings [many] versus times people didn’t care about men’s feelings [once].”

Image 4 text: “Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.” Simone de Beauvoir.

9 thoughts on “Sexism on Wikipedia: Why the #YesAllWomen Edits Matter

  1. Re: >>Women’s knowledge on Wikipedia is Other; that is, it is different and therefore suspect and it invites furious edits and deletions simply because the average Wikipedian male sees that women don’t belong in their space. Women are threatening merely because they want their knowledge to be represented in a male field, Wikipedia, which is actually supposed to represent humanity.

    Wikipedia is based on the contributions of individuals using self-selected pseudonyms. Even if there were some massive conspiracy to consign female contributions to oblivion — which there is not — there is absolutely no way to tell if an contribution is female generated or male generated; written by someone who is 16 or 65; written by a black person from Alabama or a white person from Moscow.

    “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” as the cartoon reads. Just pick the name User:ABC123. Tell me how there is going to be a campaign of gender discrimination against the contributions of that writer…

    There is absolutely a disparity in WP participation between the genders. And between the races. And between rich and poor. It does not follow that WP is sexist, racist, and bourgeois.

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    1. Hi Tim. I have cited Wikipedia’s own data and reports. So the statistics on gender and race are coming from the organisation itself, as noted in my post. Wikipedia’s Executives have addressed the fact that sexism is a problem that they want to tackle but they are having trouble because the culture of sexism is so endemic. Read the links I provided. So yes, there is an absolutely chronic problem of sexism and a bias towards Western voices on Wikipedia. The organisation and everyone else committed to social justice, agree that change needs to happen.

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  2. “I think many advocates felt like it was pointless to try and change it-or didn’t have the same kind of time and energy around it that these majority male editors have to maintain sexist and incorrect posts”.

    So, yet again, people not willing to work as hard want to ask for special privileges. Typical.

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    1. No one is asking for special privileges Pedro. Women face tremendous sexism and it becomes overwhelming to constantly face hostility and have your work deleted. The Wiki founders see this as a problem and want this changed. The Wiki foundation has publicly stated that they want more women editors but for this to happen the environment needs to change. Anyone committed to progress should not have a problem with improving Wikipedia.

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