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Upping the Female Quotient: Berkeley Edit-a-thon Recruits and Trains New Wikipedians

April 4, 2014

The online world continues to suffer from a severe shortage of WikiWomen—roughly 8 or 9 out of 10 Wikipedia editors are male. But the number of female contributors will grow as a result of the latest free WikiWomen Edit-a-thon, held Saturday in Moffitt Library at UC Berkeley.

Wikipedia, for anyone who is still operating a Radio Shack Tandy from his or her yurt in Mongolia,  is the free internet encyclopedia that is “collaboratively edited,” and contains more than 30 million articles worldwide.

The host of the edit-a-thon—the most recent in a global series loosely tied to Women’s History Month— was Sarah Stierch, an experienced Wikipedia editor herself and a fellow at the Berkeley Center for New Media. The goal: to teach women about Wikipedia’s policies and then encourage them to plunge into the online site, removing some of its inherent gender bias either by writing new articles or adding more information to existing ones. By the end of the afternoon, organizers promised that everyone would have created “edits that stick.”

On the to-do list: One participant intended to focus on entries for African American suffrage activists; someone else suggested enhancing articles about influential women including Marie Curie, Rachel Carson and Hedy Lamarr; and others proffered the names of worthy women who are not household names, such as Violet Virginia “Pinky” Smith, the first woman jockey to race against men. (As of Friday afternoon, Smith’s Wikipedia entry contained a puny one-sentence acknowledgement that she was the sixth woman in the country to obtain a jockey’s license.)

Stierch, who helped create the edit-a-thons in 2012, told the East Bay Express that this years’ events have thus far produced 331 new articles focused on women. The paper reported that she was initially stunned by the statistics revealing how much Wikipedia’s editors constituted a “boys’ club,” and then propelled to act after discovering that Wikipedia’s link to “hair stylists” redirected her to an article on barbers.

Wikipedia has endured occasional public shaming for its gender bias. The ridicule got particularly intense when its volunteer editors began methodically striking female  American novelists from the “American Novelists” category and depositing them into a separate “American Women Novelists” category. “Wikipedia bias an accurate reflection of universal bias,” tweeted Joyce Carol Oates. “All (male) writers are writers; a (woman) writer is a woman writer.”

The forces in charge of Wikipedia have been proactively trying to reverse the damage ever since, including supporting female-oriented edit-a-thons.

Research has shown that women use Wikipedia as much as men, but that Wikipedia’s content creators and editors are disproportionately male, college educated, in their 30s, and based in the United States or Europe. Women themselves offer various explanations for their anemic participation compared to men, including a lack of free time to spend online, a preference for face-to-face social engagement, and frustration over certain approaches to editing. In particular, women get discouraged when other editors delete their contributions, while men will stick around and just pummel one another with their deletions and insertions.

For more information, go the event’s Wikipedia page.

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