500 Women Scientists quest to address sexism on the internet - starting with Wikipedia

November 19, 2018

Washington, DC, USA

The members of 500 Women Scientists have set themselves an ambitious goal: to make the internet less sexist - and they are starting with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website in the world, and allows anyone with an Internet connection, reliable sources and some spare time to contribute to the encyclopedia’s corpus of knowledge. Despite being free for anyone to edit, studies have shown that somewhere between 84% and 91% of Wikipedia editors are male. That lack of diversity in editors likely contributes to the fact that only 17.7% of the biographies on English language Wikipedia are about women.

To combat bias on the free encyclopedia’s pages, two leaders of 500 Women Scientists Jess Wade (Imperial College London) and Maryam Zaringhalam (AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow) began hosting Wikipedia Edit-a-thons. In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day in October 2018, 500 Women Scientists chapters in Atlanta, Madrid, Montreal, Washington, DC, and Storrs hosted edit-a-thons, writing 69 new biographies and editing over 400. As of November 19, 2018, those pages have already been viewed 3.6 million times.

Edit-a-thons are meant to bridge the gender gaps, both in editors and in Wikipedia page content. Farah Qaiser (a graduate student at the University of Toronto) argues that creating wikipedia pages “are an effective form of science advocacy,” in a recent Evidence for Democracy piece. “Editing Wikipedia is our opportunity to make knowledge accessible and to highlight the voices and work of scientists - especially those who are traditionally underrepresented - all from the comfort of our own homes and coffee shops.” Creating pages that celebrate the achievements of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM connects those researchers to their expertise, and in turn opens online paths for aspiring young scientists to discover the work of researchers who look like themselves. As Jess Wade and Maryam Zaringhalam wrote in Nature: “We don’t have to wait for a blockbuster movie or work of non-fiction to tell us about the next Marie Curie. With Wikipedia, we can tell these stories ourselves.”

The events provide an opportunity to learn and share the achievements of trailblazing scientists, who have not garnered the recognition they deserve because of bias—whether implicit or overt. “We all found it very satisfying to work on the pages, especially as we realized just how many incredible women scientists, including several with high-profile careers, did not have Wikipedia pages,” says Nicole M. Baran of the Atlanta Pod. Indeed many in the science world were appalled last month when Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics, but did not yet have a Wikipedia page.

500 Women Scientists’ Wikipedia editing efforts are ongoing. These meetups bring together a community of women scientists and allies for a few hours to create or improve Wikipedia pages for women and underrepresented minorities. In each community they partner with local Wikipedians, who provide a basic introduction to Wikipedia editing and provide support throughout the edit-a-thon. They train the network of editors who have come out of these edit-a-thons and have gone on to be Wikipedians in their own right. If you are interested in joining or organizing an edit-a-thon, reach out to 500 Women Scientists.

500 Women Scientists’ central mission is to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible through the transformative leadership of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. To meet that mission requires changing the face of what a scientist looks like. We have leveraged our network of over 300 Pods (or local chapters) around the world to increase representation of women in STEM through a number of locally-driven initiatives. To learn more, visit www.500womenscientists.org, follow us on Twitter @500WomenSci , or email us info@500womenscientists.org.