Editors Are Trying To Fix Wikipedia's Gender And Racial Bias Problem

04/15/2015 08:35 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

For looking up a quick fact or reviewing a subject fast, Wikipedia is king. But as a site aiming to be the “sum of all human knowledge,” it’s lacking a little something -- the accomplishments and contributions of huge swaths of humanity.

Studies have shown that content on Wikipedia suffers from the bias of its editors -- mainly technically inclined, English-speaking, white-collar men living in majority-Christian, developed countries in the Northern hemisphere. According to one oft-cited study, over 90 percent of Wikipedia's largely volunteer editors are male. Those are the guys who decided it was a good idea to remove female American novelists to a special "American Female Novelists" page. Bias is such an issue that the National Science Foundation has granted over $200,000 to fund related research.

Some Wikipedia editors, however, have taken the problem into their own hands. Over the past several years, people around the world have held “edit-a-thons," in which they encourage others to come learn how to edit the world's sixth-most popular website and contribute content on subjects that have been largely ignored. One event in March, organized by Art+Feminism around International Women’s Day, attracted over 1,500 participants in 75 locations across multiple countries. Smaller edit-a-thons have been held in libraries, museums and universities around the U.S.

“In order to be representative, everyone has to participate,” said Maira Liriano, associate chief librarian at New York City’s Schomburg Center.

In February, the Schomburg Center held a “Black Life Matters” edit-a-thon during Black History Month. Around 60 participants expanded established pages and added new ones on historical figures and events in black culture, like the Harlem Book Fair and costume designer Judy Dearing.

“I’m excited that this is being talked about,” Liriano said. “It's really important that people of color know that there's this gap and they can correct it.”

Liriano said the tricky part in trying to bring lasting change to Wikipedia is turning these new editors into repeat editors -- a sentiment echoed by nearly all of the wiki editors HuffPost spoke with.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia and multiple other collaboratively edited reference sites, is acutely aware of the diversity problems facing its biggest project. “It’s been pretty well-researched that women in many communities have less leisure time than men,” Siko Bouterse, director of community resources at the Wikimedia Foundation, told HuffPost.

Adding information takes time. Submitting edits to a page is a several-step process, in which each change must be properly sourced. Not following protocol may drive another editor, perhaps in some other part of the world, to revert the page back to an earlier version or to delete a newly added page entirely.

Editing battles can crop up even at edit-a-thon events. Sarah Stierch, a longtime Wikipedian who's led many edit-a-thons, recounted a particularly stressful fight in 2012. Someone at the event had added a page for Clara Hasse, an American botanist who identified a disease affecting citrus plants in the early 20th century. But within minutes, some editor somewhere nominated it for deletion. Since Hasse was technically an assistant to the male botanist in charge, she wasn’t deemed “notable” enough to have her own page.

“It was demoralizing,” Stierch remembered, but the edit-a-thon volunteers were able to save the page by quickly adding more information.

“Notability” is a troubling problem for those fighting for more content about women and minorities. Not everyone gets a Wikipedia page, after all. Editors have to prove the subject's worth -- maybe she's had national news articles written about her, or perhaps his art is held in a museum’s collection. But there's simply less documentation on many accomplished women and minorities throughout history -- they were often ignored, after all, or forced to make their contributions as someone else's assistant. That makes demonstrating why they deserve a mention on the Internet’s “sum of all human knowledge” more difficult.

"We have to overcompensate for women, you know, with more citations than usual, with more information than usual, with more digitized histories, with more books and more writing about them,” Stierch said. “Because guys don't write about women. Women write about women.”

The Wikimedia Foundation is trying to help. It recently set aside $250,000 for an initiative to increase its sites' gender diversity, called the Inspire Campaign. In March, the campaign generated 266 ideas from individuals and groups around the world, and the foundation must now determine which proposals will receive funding, Bouterse said.

In the last year, too, a significant portion of grants awarded by the Wikimedia Foundation went to organizations in the "Global South" -- including Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East -- with plans to improve Wikipedia. The foundation also helped pay for Art+Feminism’s 2015 edit-a-thon and the cost of building a website this year. For smaller events, the foundation or its local chapters might chip in for food and drinks.

But even with all the efforts going to organize edit-a-thon events, several people told HuffPost that awareness and training might not be enough to fix Wikipedia’s woes.

“No one event is going to change the plight of Wikipedia,” said Maia Weinstock, who has organized edit-a-thons for several years on Ada Lovelace Day, named in honor of the pioneering 19th-century computer scientist.

Unfortunately, the new participants don't tend to remain active Wikipedia editors. When active Wikipedians checked the records of those who had previously attended an edit-a-thon event -- every participant creates a unique username, so an individual’s edits are easy to find -- Weinstock said they found that not too many were still working to improve the site months afterward.

Beyond the time commitment, Stierch believes Wikipedia's dude culture may be turning off the edit-a-thon participants. Edits are typically discussed on what are called “talk pages," where editors chat about changes to a page -- or intensely debate them, as in the case of Gamergate-related pages. Nerdy white guys aren't always warm and nurturing. Comments on talk pages can be very blunt.

“When you have a male-dominated space, customer service isn't always a number one priority,” Stierch said. In response, she helped create a small corner of Wikipedia for friendly discussion and teaching called the Teahouse.

Siân Evans, one of the Art+Feminism organizers, would also like to see the Wikimedia Foundation conduct more research on how gender, race and other factors “dictate the sociopolitical reality of Wikipedia edits.”

“I think they're thinking about that more critically as they grow as an organization,” Evans said.

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