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‘Wikipedian’ editor took on website’s gender gap

May 18, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
Wikipedia has come under scrutiny over a lack of female representation and participation on the website. To combat this trend, Adrianne Wadewitz was a dedicated "Wikipedian," who wrote and edited content on Wikipedia as one of the nearly 75,000 active volunteer editors.

TRACY WHOLF: Rebecca Morris is a prominent, contemporary American artist. With a career spanning the last 20 years, her paintings can be viewed in galleries and museums around the globe including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the Goetz collection in Munich, Germany.

And if you google her, immediately images of her work and links to interviews appear.

But prior to March 9 of this year, Rebecca Morris didn’t have a Wikipedia page. Some say that this omission is a small example of a very large problem: the lack of female representation and participation on one of the world’s most popular websites: Wikipedia.

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: We definitely wanna increase the number of women. But just increasing the number of women isn’t necessarily going to– improve the– the fact that content on Wikipedia itself is skewed.

TRACY WHOLF: Adrianne Wadewitz was a dedicated Wikipedian – writing and editing content on Wikipedia as one of the nearly 75-thousand active volunteer editors.

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: So I’m one of the 15 top contributors of high-quality content.

TRACY WHOLF: And being a female editor put Wadewitz on a very short list.

A study published in 2010 by the United Nations University and by the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, discovered that less than 13% of contributors are women. The same study found that the average Wikipedia editor is male and in his mid-20s.

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: That means that voices and perspectives–are being left out.

TRACY WHOLF: Wadewitz first started editing Wikipedia 10 years ago, while working towards a PhD in English literature. This led her to writing entries for authors like William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. She worked alongside dozens of other contributors on Shakespeare’s page. Her experience working on Jane Austen’s entry was very different.

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: I, and one other person, worked on the Jane Austen article. So it’s a pretty interesting dichotomy to me. People read Austen all the time. But they don’t go to Wikipedia to edit it.

TRACY WHOLF: Fewer women contributors, she said, inevitably influences what ends up on Wikipedia.

One example, noted by a media columnist from the New York Times in 2011, is the lengthy descriptions in Wikipedia about ‘The Sopranos’ compared to the much shorter entry for the more female oriented ‘Sex and the City.’

Wadewitz said to attract more women editors, attitudes within the Wikipedia community need to change. This became clear when she revealed her gender, after writing anonymously for several years.

TRACY WHOLF: And what happened once you identified yourself specifically as a woman editor?

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: Well, there was a big change in how people treated me and how they viewed the information I put on Wikipedia. There were a lot more questions about what I was adding.

There was a lot more skepticism. And a lotta times when I made arguments– about including a specific piece of content or excluding a specific piece of content, I was accused of being hysterical or emotional. Things that had never happened before.

TRACY WHOLF: After the Wikimedia study came out detailing how few women were editing, then executive director Sue Gardner set a goal of increasing female contributors to 25% by 2015.

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: So I think one thing that Wikipedia has to do as a culture is ask itself, “Are we willing– to be this– this self-selecting– and– and be this small?” We can have many more people if we’re willing to be a more welcoming community.

TRACY WHOLF: To help achieve this, many groups have organized ‘Edit-a-Thons’ – events where experienced Wikipedians and first-timers get together to help each other write new content. Edit-a-thons are not gender-exclusive, but increasingly women are recruiting other women to participate.

TRACY WHOLF: Do you think that more should be happening in order to try to increase the participation of women as editors and– and content on Wikipedia?

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: So in one respect, I would say that we need to add the voice of feminists to Wikipedia who are going to talk about– women as underrepresented groups.

TRACY WHOLF: This edit-a-thon, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in March, focused on creating entries for L.A.-artists, many of them women…and that’s how Rebecca Morris got her page in the world’s largest encyclopedia.

ADRIANNE WADEWITZ: I know something about how the first encyclopedias were developed in the 18th century. And those encyclopedias almost completely excluded the history of women. And it’s one argument that we make all the time.

When we’re talking both to Wikipedians and people outside of Wikipedia, we say, “Look, if we want to include all of these other narratives besides the typical narrative that we usually tell of dead white men, we’ve gotta get it in there now.”

Editor’s note: A few weeks after we taped our interview with Adrianne Wadewitz, she died following a rock climbing accident. We broadcast this report with the encouragement of her family.

Additional Material Provided by:

Phoebe Ayers, The Wikimedia Foundation

Marie DeLucia Ternieden

Victor Grigas, The Wikimedia Foundation

Peter B. James