By Nancy Zeldis, Women's eNews
(WOMENSENEWS)--With as few as 13 percent of its English-speaking editors/contributors being female, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is reeling under the latest charges of sexism.
Some of the site's repair and recovery on this issue could fall to 32-year-old Sarah Stierch, a Wikipedia editor, "open culture" enthusiast and former deejay from Oakland, Calif., who is emerging as the go-to person for gender-related issues.
"She is a central figure in the community of volunteer editors on the issue," said Matthew Roth, global communications manager for the Wikimedia Foundation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that runs the literary behemoth.
Women's eNews reached Stierch in Oakland by phone, in the aftermath of the recent dust-up over the excision of women from the names in the encyclopedia's category of "American Novelists" to the subcategory of "Women American Novelists."
"Now people are discussing how to handle the situation, and the categories--that's how it should work," Stierch said. "That is what makes Wikipedia so magical--good and bad magic!"
Stierch, who holds a B.A. in Native American studies from Indiana University School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis and an M.A. in museum studies from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said it's important that more women and "feminists of any gender" are involved in how entries are categorized and presented. "It's not just about improving content, it's about also participating in the discussions on the talk pages of categories, articles, and so forth."
Stierch has 75,930 Wikipedia edits to her credit, including 400 article entries, over seven years as a contributor and volunteer, she said. Some 60 percent of the edits or stubs are gender-related.
Wikimedia Foundation's Executive Director Sue Gardner said that March 2013 shattered visit records at its ever popular sites of which Wikipedia is the flagship. The combined sites hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation reached a record 517 million monthly visitors. More than 1.5 million people have contributed to Wikipedia's 23 million articles.
In a recent blog Gardner said that "like librarians and probably all reference professionals, Wikipedians are detail-obsessed pedants. We argue endlessly about stuff like whether Japan's Tsushima Island is a single island or a trio of islands. Whether the main character in Grand Theft Auto IV is Serbian, Slovak, Bosnian, Croatian or Russian. Whether Baltimore has a couple of snowstorms a year or several . . . none of this makes us fun at parties, but it does make us good at encyclopedia writing."
On Wikipedia, anyone can be a contributor or editor by clicking on an edit button and making changes, provided they follow the rules of the road. The typical Wikipedia editor is male, holds a college degree, is 30 years old and computer savvy, according to Wikipedia's Editor's Survey of 2011.
Stierch noted three reasons why fewer women than men contribute to Wikipedia. Women don't like argumentation and debate, "the geekiness" that can prevail at Wikipedia; they don't seem to like to write as long as men in their entries; and many have lives involving children and other demands that make it difficult to participate in as involved a way as men do.
Three weeks ago--just before the latest scandal broke via an April 24 column in The New York Times by writer Amanda Filipacchi--Stierch joined the Wikimedia Foundation's headquarters in San Francisco as the program evaluation community coordinator. She works with the foundation's grant-making and programs team to help evaluate the effectiveness of grants dispersed to Wikimedia organizations. The role is newly created, said Roth.
Before joining the foundation, Stierch held a paid fellowship at the encyclopedia last year focusing on gender work. She taught women around the country how to use Wikipedia at edit-a-thons both online and in person and attended an invitation-only event for women in science at the Royal Academy of Science in London.
Wikimedia Foundation's Roth said Stierch is continuing to serve as a coordinator of two projects that she helped found that "work to improve gender issues on Wikipedia."
One is the Wiki Women's Collaborative, which she helped start to improve content on Wikipedia; the other is the Wikipedia Teahouse, an online friendly forum that helps new editors become accustomed to Wikipedia culture, in particular women.
Female Writers Erased
Wikipedia's erasure of female writers from its main U.S. literary category came at a high-profile moment, as the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In --in which scores of women on college campuses "stormed" Wikipedia with entries or stubs--was being held, on April 26.
The migration of women from the category of "American Novelists" to their own, single-sex category incited the ire of, among others, Joyce Carol Oates.
Filipacchi has linked at least seven editors to the incident. One editor who has taken most of the heat--and who Fililpacchi is now striving to emphasize was not alone--is John Pack Lambert, a 2008 graduate from Wayne State University in Detroit, with over 100,000 edits to his credit and a penchant for subcategorizing long lists, including moving women from the "actors" category into that of "women actresses."
Women's eNews messaged Lambert on his Facebook page but he did not reply.
Lambert, a history major and transfer student from Brigham Young University is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. He said on his Facebook page that he lauds the Mormon church's creation of a Mission Leadership Council to enhance the role of the mission president's wife and to create women missionaries.
In an April 23 post on his Facebook page, he wrote, "I think we should start speaking of the mission president and presidentess. With the creation of the mission councils that include her that seems a logical term to me."
Stierch criticized Lambert, with whom she said she had never worked, but she also strove to lower some of the heat currently focused on him.
"My new band is the presidentresses," she quipped.
Stierch said his edits, which outdo her own in number, show "a deep passion for improving the world's most utilized free encyclopedia and serve a good cause."
"While he may not write articles a lot or do work that is often noticed--we call these people WikiGnomes--his work is critical for making sure that Wikipedia is navigable and organized for exploration. Sadly, this one categorization issue wasn't executed very clearly," she said.
She added, "I don't support how he executed the project. I believe he failed to communicate what he was planning on doing with the community, which is how Wikipedia works. Major changes are often discussed with the community beforehand and I don't believe he did that when he started moving women out of the category."