How we doubled the representation of female classical scholars on Wikipedia

Victoria Leonard on bringing equality to the world's largest reference tool

June 11, 2017
Classical womens heads
Source: Katherine Macdonald

With more than 5 million articles in English and 30 million registered users, Wikipedia is the largest and most influential source of information in the world.

But the online community-based encyclopedia is not a self-generating mass of neutral and reliable knowledge. It is created by people writing collaboratively all over the world. As a result, it reflects not only what people know but also how they think about it, and what they think is important. Along with facts and figures, these implicit value judgements also get written into Wikipedia, determining what is represented and how.

However, fewer than 15 per cent of English-language Wikipedia editors are women. While there is nothing wrong with the male perspective, the fact that it is mostly men who decide what enters this hugely important repository of knowledge has real consequences. Pages on Star Wars spaceships, video games and porn stars are clear and comprehensive; paradigms of Wikipedia scholarship replete with authoritative, detailed information.

When it comes to women, Wikipedia’s gender bias really bites: only one in six of its 1.5 million biographies were of women. That slant is even more apparent when it comes to classical studies: an estimate in 2016 found that only 7 per cent of biographies of classicists were of women.

When women are included on Wikipedia, their lives and achievements are often articulated in relation to men. Miriam T. Griffin did not have a dedicated Wikipedia page and was only mentioned on the site as the wife of fellow classicist Jasper Griffin. Dr Griffin may have been a tutor in ancient history at the University of Oxford since 1967, the author of 10 books, and 61 entries in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, but she had no Wikipedia page. Leslie Brubaker, an expert on Byzantine art history at the University of Birmingham, is also mentioned only on her husband’s Wikipedia page.

If you are employed as a “professor”, you automatically meet the notability requirements on Wikipedia; and yet 59 per cent of UK female professors of Classics have no representation on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s gender bias seems like an intractable problem, but this does not need to be true: as in other areas where inequality seems irrevocable, it’s about willpower. Editing Wikipedia is pretty easy (and getting easier), pretty cheap (free) and pretty quick (instant). The Welsh-language Wikipedia (Cywiki) currently has more biographies of women than men. This has been achieved largely through “editathons” that bring people together to edit Wikipedia collectively, often with training provided.

While reversing Wikipedia’s gender skew may seem like an insurmountable task, breaking it down makes it much easier to achieve. The online activism of the Women’s Classical Committee offers a good example of how real progress can be made by small groups or individuals without specialist knowledge or funds, just desire for change.

Founded two years ago with the purpose of supporting women who teach, research and study classical subjects, it held its first editathon in London in January 2017 to begin improving the visibility of female classical scholars on Wikipedia. Academics, Wikimedia volunteers, librarians, students and publishers participated, both in person and remotely via Skype. Nineteen articles were created or expanded, providing new information on significant female classicists such as Dorothy Tarrant, the first female professor of Greek in the UK.

This event alone doubled the representation of female classical scholars on Wikipedia.

Through the WCC’s initiative, 39 articles have been created or improved, swinging the pendulum so that roughly one in three biographies of classicists is of a woman. Five of the articles have appeared on Wikipedia’s front page, in the "Did You Know" section.The WCC now organises monthly remote editing sessions alongside training sessions.

Why is this important? Because accessibility is essential to inclusivity. Through free online tools, the WCC has established a large and informed community, mobilising activism and pooling knowledge and resources.

The WCC aims to continue reversing the gender skew online and mobilising change through digital tools, providing a positive example for others to follow. At least online, rewriting inclusive history has never been so easy and has never had so much potential for change. 

Victoria Leonard is a research associate at the Institute of Classical Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study

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Reader's comments (1)

Re: <i>"If you are employed as a “professor”, you automatically meet the notability requirements on Wikipedia; and yet 59 per cent of UK female professors of Classics have no representation on Wikipedia."</i> That sounds nice and makes intuitive sense, but it is NOT correct. If one holds a NAMED PROFESSORSHIP, one automatically meets muster in terms of Wikipedia's notability standards. If one is a DEPARTMENT CHAIR, one automatically meets muster. Outside of that, one needs a publication history and some sort of broad recognition of expertise in one's field. In general, Assistant Professors and Associate Professors often come in for rough sledding if biographical articles are challenged for deletion; full Professors generally have no big issue, typically since they are the ones with extensive publication track records and recognition as subject experts in the media or by society at large. There is no conspiracy against female scholars, which is not to say that there aren't deficiencies and blank spots at Wikipedia in need of correction and improvement. Getting more people involved in making these improvements is a good thing, so please do, no matter what your gender, race, or age. —Tim Davenport //// "Carrite" on WP

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