I recently had the opportunity to visit the Wikisym 2011 conference and am in the process of writing a conference report with Han-Teng Liao. Doing so made me want to flag up an interesting debate that happened during the meeting.
There has recently been a lot of talk in the media about gender imbalances in Wikipedia (for instance, the often cited statistic that less than 15% of Wikipedia editors are female), and luckily this was also a major theme at the conference. Two papers in particular demonstrated the gender imbalances not only exist, but also significantly influence the types of information that exist in Wikipedia (the papers were titled ‘An Exploration of Wikipedia’s Gender Imbalance’ and ‘Gender Differences in Wikipedia Editing
Perhaps the most interesting discussion of these imbalances came during a talk by Jen Lowe when she brought up the Wikipedia article on Feodor Vassilyev.
Feodor is apparently notable enough for a Wikipedia article because his wife sets the record for the most children birthed by a single woman. Just to reiterate, it is Mr. Vassilyev and not Mrs. Vassilyev who is deemed notable enough to have a Wikipedia article here!
Given the fact that the Vassilyevs were alive in the eighteenth century, the masculinist biases that shaped how this story was recorded are perhaps not surprising. However, what is more important is for contemporary information creators on Wikipedia to become aware of such biases and actively work to not reproduce them. In other words, while we of course need to make efforts to make Wikipedia editors more representative of the general population, we need to recognise that addressing imbalance is only the first step. The issue is not just a lack of female editors, but also gender biases embedded into the ways in which we discuss and represent subjects in Wikipiedia.