Directly Tackling the Gender Bias of Wikipedia’s Social Science Entries

Wikipedia is the best thing ever

So says Michael Scott, regional manager in the US version of The Office. “Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information.”

Fifteen years later, Scott’s assessment continues to remind us of the power of Wikipedia—as well as its pitfalls. Wikipedia is the fifth most visited site in the world and the most popular reference work in history. And while its policy of allowing anyone to edit democratizes knowledge, it also puts the site at risk of systemic bias.

Among the most frequent criticisms of Wikipedia is gender bias, which is known as the Wikipedia gender gap. Only 19 percent of Wikipedia biographies are of women, and a vast majority of Wikipedia contributors are male. In her 2021 study into gender inequality on Wikipedia, sociologist Francesca Tripodi writes, “My data indicate that biographies about women who meet Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion are more likely to be considered non-notable than men’s.” If an editor doesn’t find enough reliable secondary sources to meet Wikipedia’s high notability standards, then their entry might be unpublished or be flagged for deletion, such as the biography for Donna Strickland, winner of a Nobel Prize.

This article by Mariah John-Leighton and Hannah Jane Pearson originally appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as “Social Scientists Can’t Ignore the Power of Wikipedia—or Its Systemic Biases”

Wikipedia itself recognizes its systemic biases and is working to address them through initiatives like Women in Red, a group of global editors focused on reducing systemic bias in the wiki movement, as well as holding edit-a-thons. These edit-a-thons often revolve around a theme, such as cultural heritage sites or social justice issues, and bring experienced and new Wikipedia editors together with the goal of reducing systemic bias. If you are interested in learning how to combat Wikipedia’s gender imbalance, read more here.

With that as an inspiration, Sage [the parent of Social Science Space] hosted a Wikipedia edit-a-thon on International Women’s Day. For four hours, volunteers in London, Washington D.C. and online created new posts on female scholars and updated the public profiles of women scholars doing vital work in social and behavioral science.

While Wikipedia itself has a mixed reputation in academe, gone are the days when academics could ignore its impact. Academics in the early 2000s often approached Wikipedia with skepticism, the site has emerged as an accepted reference material, and institutions have taken notice. “Many Wikipedia pages summarise, cite, and curate scholarly information in an accessible format,” writes Rachel Help, Wikipedian-in-residence at Brigham Young University. “A well-written Wikipedia page will cite scholarly publications with links to the articles in those citations that can be accessed immediately by users.” In other words, Wikipedia is already influencing scholars and publishers, as seen by the citation advantage Wikipedia gives to open access research. Advantages can have significant impacts on scholars’ careers, particularly women scholars, which means an appreciation for Wikipedia—and an awareness of its systemic biases—is crucial.

Our edit-a-thon aimed to “spread awareness and raise the profile of women scholars doing critical work to advance their disciplines, improve how our sciences are taught, and create solutions to pressing social issues.” Sage was founded by a woman, Sara Miller McCune, who started the company in 1965 with the belief that social science research can and must play an important role in shaping society.

In these fields, women occupy more than 60 percent of social science jobs in 2019 and have earned 61 percent masters and doctorates in SBS studies. This representation is reflected in women’s immense contributions to the development of the social sciences, ranging from the formulation of basic methodological assumptions, to key theoretical concepts, to the pioneering use of the methodology in research. With pioneers such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, whose work in Crimea set the standards for modern nursing, Beatrice Webb, co-founder of LSE and social reformer, whose work in empirical sociology helped provide the blueprint for the British welfare state, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which is often seen as the foundation of modern women’s rights movements in the Western world.

Such innovation continues today through women whose profiles we were able to create, such as Beverly J. Vandiver whose research on Black racial Identity, specifically her development of the Cross Racial Identity Scale, is the most widely cited racial identity approach. A further example can be seen through Dawn McBride, a social scientist who has published over 50 articles and book chapters that have been cited over 1,200 times, giving her an h-index of 19.

These contributions are overlooked even though, as Lyn McDonald has noted, their “contributions have been greater in number, more important in quality, and considerably more distinctive than is commonly realized.” While this gender bias sees women underrepresented in positions of power, with often stunted careers and smaller salaries, but also short-changed in credit and recognition by both the public and their peers. For example, Li-Yin Liu and her colleagues found, “political science instructors are less likely to cite women than men in their course syllabi, and they tend to assign textbooks and other readings in which women are underrepresented.”

Events such as our Women in Social and Behavioural Science Edit-a-thon offered one step to redress these issues through the power of Wikipedia. “Despite the fact that we were editing from so many different locations, there was real power in knowing that we were all working toward the same goal at the same time,” says Charisse Kiino, vice president of College Product & Market Development at Sage.

As a result of our joint effort, volunteer editors updated 18 profiles and created 49 new ones, narrowing the Wikipedia gender gap, elevating the status of women scholars, and helping Wikipedia become—in the words of Michael Scott—“the best thing ever.”

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Mariah John-Leighton and Hannah Jane Pearson

Mariah John-Leighton is a corporate communications intern at Sage and a digital publishing student at Oxford Brookes with dreams of working in children’s publishing. Hannah Jane Pearson is a corporate communications intern at Sage and an MFA creative writing candidate at the University of South Carolina.

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