Universities offer classes to help women ‘storm Wikipedia’

It's not exactly a secret that Wikipedia has a gender problem.


Aaron Sankin


Published Sep 3, 2013   Updated Jun 1, 2021, 7:30 am CDT

It’s not exactly a secret that Wikipedia has a gender problem. A recent analysis showed that only about 10 percent of the volunteer editors who provide the bulk of the site’s content are female, and the few female editors that do exist aren’t typically as prolific as their male counterparts, leading many to charge that this gender imbalance has skewed the site’s content toward a male point of view.

A consortium of more than a dozen North American universities is working proactively to solve this problem. They’re offering classes designed to push female students to “storm Wikipedia” with contributions.

In the participating “Dialogues on Feminism and Technology” class offered this semester at the Ontario College of Art and Design, the first assignment for students is to create or modify the Wikipedia entry of women involved in the fields of science and technology.

“A woman’s point of view or feminist point of view is not yet expressed in relationship to women in technology in Wikipedia,” Dr. Alexandra Juhasz, a professor of media studies at California’s Pitzer College who is teaching one iteration of a class, told CampusReform.org. “We hope that people engage in this project in respect to other themes as well.”

One example of Wikipedia’s male bias was revealed earlier this year, when a New York Times op-ed charged that editors were systematically moving all of the female writers out of the “American Novelists” category and into one entitled “American Female Novelists.”

This recent effort to make the site a more hospitable place for women is being spearheaded by the feminist scholar network FemTechNet. It’s the group’s first official foray into the world of Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs), which use the Internet to allow for lesson-plan sharing and collaborative learning occurring simultaneously numerous institutions around the globe.

DOCCs differ from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in that, while the latter uses the power of the Internet to expand the size of a class while keeping the model of one professor teaching a mass of students intact, DOCCs facilitate more of an equitable give-and-take between both parties.

“[MOCCs] … couldn’t be more patriarchal,” Anne Balsamo, dean of the School of Media Studies at New York’s New School, complained to CBC News. “That displays a hubris that is unthinkable from a feminist perspective.”

Other schools participating in the project include Brown, Yale, and Cal Poly universities.

Wikipedia’s gender gap has been attributed to a whole host of factors—from the site’s obtuse user interface, to many women’s distaste for directly engaging in the sort of conflicts that commonly occur between editors, to an atmosphere that some have called downright “misogynist,” where articles about women or women’s issues are flagged other editors are a higher rate than entries on other topics.

Wikipedia is also making its own internal effort to increase its proportion of female editors—setting the goal of one in four female editors by 2025. “The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know,” Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner told the New York Times. “Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table. … If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”

One such effort is the WikiWomen’s Collaborative, which serves a community hub and support system for female Wikipedia editors. Another was the “Women of Wikipedia edit-a-thon” hosted by the Wikimedia U.K. last year, where a mass of profiles of prominent women in the fields of technology and engineering were created or updated.

H/T CBC News | Photo via Johann Dreo/Flickr

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*First Published: Sep 3, 2013, 2:33 pm CDT