WMC Speech Project

Creating A Model for Helping Women Thrive in Wikipedia


How are young women on college campuses using their voices to contribute to the knowledge base about women and women’s issues? Young women within this demographic are finding increasingly diverse ways to amplify their voices and advocate for themselves and the causes they care about. Editing Wikipedia has become one of these things. Young women are taking to Wikipedia to provide fact based, free information about causes that they seek to advocate.

Wikipedia, just over sixteen years old, is the seventh most visited website in the world. However, Wikipedia has a glaring gender gap issue in which less than 18% of biographies on the online encyclopedia are about women. On average, only 10% of the volunteer editor base that creates and contributes to these articles are women. Furthermore, many Wikipedia articles about women contain bias, emphasizing notability as related to their husbands or fathers, rather their own individual accomplishments, noteworthy on their own.

In an effort to find creative solutions to its gender gap problem, in 2015 the Wikimedia Foundation launched a series of Inspire grants.  My position was originally funded through this grant and I worked to find ways in which the gender gap on Wikipedia can begin to be solved through collaboration with university administrators, faculty, and students. As the Wikipedian in Residence for Gender Equity, I’ve overwhelmingly found that young women are interested in Wikipedia as an outlet for their activism, especially if they are attending schools in isolated college towns. Wikipedia’s wide reach and readership allows even small contributions and edits to have a global reach and effects. This makes editing Wikipedia attractive as an outlet for feminist activism because young women can make edits to topics that are important to them at their leisure. In addition, young women at universities throughout the country have access to peer reviewed journal articles not easily accessible to the wider population. Adding research and information gleaned from these sources allows these women to improve the quality of information available on Wikipedia.

Activism in the form of editing and contributing to Wikipedia articles is a natural venue for women immersed in social media engagement. Using research skills that they have spent their lifetimes honing (you’d be surprised how often “just Google it” is a solution for research—even for academic professionals), women have the potential and opportunity to narrow massive gender and information gaps on Wikipedia and other information resources. In my work I have realized the enormous potential of this demographic to make scalable change. To that end, I’ve advocated for the incorporation of Wikipedia into the service learning components of West Virginia University. Now students required to complete service hours, both at undergraduate and graduate levels, for their major or an organization that they belong to (e.g., sororities) can earn these hours by contributing to and editing Wikipedia articles that aid in closing the gender gap, and generally improve the quality of information available to all Wikipedia users.

West Virginia University is a particularly important place for this type of work to occur. Nestled in the heart of the Coal Country in Appalachia, many students, particularly in-state students come from small, rural communities—many (though certainly not all) of these women have been raised with conservative values that have traditionally marginalized and minimized their voices and social and economic influence and impact. By becoming exposed to editing Wikipedia as a form of activism, amplifying their voices and allowing them to have a global reach and readership, these young women become active participants in knowledge production and dissemination .

Because of the nature of these students’ engagement with social media websites, they are not strangers to online harassment. Editors who identify as women in Wikipedia can face hostility, as on other male-dominant platforms.  Young women in this setting can feel more comfortable editing in groups (e.g., graduate student cohorts, sororities) because it mitigates potential harassment issues present in most user created content communities. Editing Wikipedia articles in a group setting they can build a support structure that supports and encourages their continued engagement. I have found that female students who edit in groups become more confident over time in their contributions and their zeal to continue closing what they see to be unacceptable gaps on Wikipedia.

I have been engaged in outreach at other universities and with students who are interested in seeing similar programs established at their own institutions and am hopeful that this model will continue to expand. I am very proud of this work, as I believe that it provides unprecedented opportunities  for young women to change the landscape of the knowledge economy. This initiative can be easily adopted and adapted at universities in the United States and abroad.

If you are  interested in editing Wikipedia you can get started here. Missing biographies and/or articles about women you can add to Wikipedia are listed here. If you would like to learn more about the outreach Kelly does on college campuses or request specific outreach on your campus, you can email her at Kelly.Doyle@mail.wvu.edu.

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