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Archival Activism: the Editors fighting Wikipedia’s Sexism Problem

Tuesday 13th February 2018

Before leading the women’s suffrage movement to victory in 1893, Kate Sheppard is said to have caused a scandal by cycling in public.  

Kate Sheppard

Photo: Archives New Zealand

Harassment of female cyclists was common at the time. Bystanders would heckle and local boys reportedly shoved sticks into their spokes. Sheppard, who advocated for females to lead active lifestyles, was “the first woman in Christchurch to be seen riding a bicycle,” wrote journalist Conrad Bollinger, “attracting stones from the larrikins and a snub from the vicar.”

Unfortunately for Dunedin-based Wikipedia editor Susan Tolich, there are no photographs of Sheppard’s more active endeavours to add to the suffragette’s Wikipedia article. “She doesn’t really have any action shots,” she says. “People have suggested that I find pictures of her leading a rally or speaking at a public event, but there are just pictures of her looking lovely, sedate, and regal.”

Sheppard’s article only has two photographs of her. One is the iconic 1905 image seen on New Zealand’s ten-dollar note, the other is a portrait taken nine years later in which she stares into the middle distance, poised and languid.

With the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage this September as their deadline, Tolich is working alongside a group of editors to turn Kate Sheppard’s Wikipedia page into a featured article – a status awarded to the less than 0.1 percent of entries considered to be of the highest quality based on completeness, neutrality, accuracy, and style.

Tolich’s motivation is to combat Wikipedia’s gender imbalance. Findings from February 2018 show that only 17 percent of biographical articles in English are about women and a 2011 survey found that less than 10 percent of editors were female. The Wikimedia Foundation set up an initiative to increase the number of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Whales later told the BBC that this plan “completely failed.”

A 2016 study found that the average female biography is more negative in its descriptions, more focused on its subject’s role as a spouse and parent, and less likely to be linked to in other relevant articles. This asymmetry has led to an environment hostile to women, with many experiencing harassment from trolls.

“Looking through New Zealand’s history, lots of soldiers and lots of generals have really prominent Wikipedia pages, but female artists less so,” says Tolich. “The gender imbalance determines the subjects that are covered… You’re left with an incomplete idea of history. The women are just invisible.”

Before she made her first edit, Tolich’s brother, an experienced Wikipedia contributor, gave her a warning. “Be careful going in there,” he said. “The community can be really harsh on newcomers.” He was talking about the site’s user ranking system, which gives senior editors the power to delete the work of beginners if they believe it violates the manual of style, a measure Tolich says is disproportionately used against females. Another editor advised her to go as far as changing her username so it disguised her gender.

***

Tolich, who has been fascinated with New Zealand history since high school, started editing Wikipedia in July 2017. As part of her master’s in museum and heritage studies at Victoria University she was interning at the Auckland War Memorial Museum as a ‘Wikimedian in residence’ – an in-house editor who contributes to the site using an organisation’s resources.

Despite its problems, Tolich appreciates Wikipedia’s accessibility. “All you need is an internet connection,” she says. “This information used to be stored in libraries or universities… [Wikipedia] makes it accessible to people who maybe can’t go to university, who find all that information behind a paywall.”

The first article she created was about designer Susan Holmes. “It didn’t get deleted, which was great,” says Tolich, who went on to make a series of pages about other female fashion designers from New Zealand, such as Annie Bonza, Marilyn Sainty, and Emma Knuckey. “Ever since then more people have come and added to them, so I can’t really even take full responsibility for them anymore because it’s a community thing.”

Susan Tolich

Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum

An organisation called Women in Red aided Tolich during this period. “It’s an international community that’s solely focused on making biographies about women,” she says. “They have lots of how-to guides… how to edit an article, how to stick to the manual of style, how to make sure your articles don’t get deleted. They also just give you emotional support in case anyone’s harassing you.”

Tolich is yet to receive any misogynistic messages on her talk page – the Wikipedia equivalent of a personal Facebook timeline – but suspects this may be because she hasn’t contributed to any contentious articles. “We’ll see as time goes on as I go into more controversial topics. Hopefully, I stay hate-free.”

Other female editors have more difficulty avoiding abuse. “I’m lucky that my talk page is watched by a lot of people,” says Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, the Californian co-founder of Women in Red. “When the odd naked picture has been put on there by a vandal, or when somebody has said something that’s on the subject of rape, someone has pretty quickly removed it. But there are lots of women who have felt much worse harassment and either leave or cut back on their editing.”

Fellow Wikipedia editor Emily Temple-Wood made headlines in 2016 after experiencing so much harassment that she started creating a Wikipedia page for a female scientist every time she receives an abusive or threatening message. “It feels bad, but some of us just choose to continue going forward,” says Stephenson-Goodknight.

***

Women in Red was co-founded by Stephenson-Goodknight in 2015. After her retirement from healthcare administration about a year ago, she began spending 40 hours per week on Wikipedia projects. She has written about 5,000 articles, translated hundreds of pages into English from several languages, won the 2016 ‘Wikipedian of the year’ award, and travelled all over the world to participate in Wikipedia conferences. Last year alone she attended events in Mexico, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Serbia.

Every month, Women in Red hosts a series of online ‘edit-a-thons’ – events at which editors collectively focus on contributing to a specific topic. In September 2017, Tolich participated in their New Zealand women event.  Last month, they held edit-a-thons about women in fashion as well as female prisoners and detainees. Participants mostly work on individual tasks, but can keep track of each other’s goals and progress on ‘meetup’ pages. “I might be the only one working on an article, but it’s this feeling of camaraderie,” says Stephenson-Goodknight. “I sense their online presence.”

Before Women in Red was founded, every Women’s History Month would see a spike in the number of female biographies. “We noticed that there were all these articles created in the month of March, but the other 11 months not so much,” says Stephenson-Goodknight. Women in Red, which refers to the red links signifying the nonexistence of an article, was conceived as a way to expand women’s biographies all year long.

She launched the organisation with her co-founder Roger Bamkin in July 2015 during a presentation at the three-day Wikimania conference at a Hilton Hotel in Mexico City. “It was a hot and lovely summer,” says Stephen-Goodknight, who enjoyed catching up with her fellow editors over drinks late into the evening. “Mostly we do our wiki work alone at home so together time is precious.”

They gave their talk in the main auditorium to an audience of about 200 people. Although Stephenson-Goodknight remembers an engaged crowd who asked lots of questions, she was still doubtful about the project’s future. “My thought was, ‘we’re going to have 15 minutes of fame, for the next week there will be an interest and then it will end.’” She says. “And to our surprise we were wrong. There were over 1,000 articles created about women before the end of July, and now over 50,000 articles have been created since we started.”

Since 2015, Women in Red has helped increase the proportion of female biographies from 15 to 17 percent. “If only 17 percent of notable humans were women then I’d say, ‘good, job, well done.’ But my gut tells me that that’s not an accurate depiction of the historical record of humankind.”

***

Stephenson-Goodknight says Wikipedia editing is an opportunity to explore the topics she never got to study. “I started university and was fascinated about First Nations of Canada,” she says. “I just thought, ‘this is my life’s calling.’ But unfortunately, my father was very much against that.” He made her study something he believed would lead to a part-time job fitting for a mother and housewife.  “And so I majored in business and then, later on, got a master’s in business administration. I have to say, I had a great career. But in my heart, I’m a cultural anthropologist – and Wikipedia, it’s given me that opportunity.”

Stephenson-Goodknight created her first article on June 4th 2007. At first, she was particularly interested in writing about the geography of Nunavut, Canada. “Hundreds of articles about lakes, rivers, peninsulas, points, peaks, mountains. And then it was hundreds of articles about Asturias, Spain.” Nowadays, she’s more focused on 19th-century American female writers and pre-20th century women’s conferences.

“It’s difficult to put into words,” she says, describing what draws her to Wikipedia editing. “It’s this fascination I have with finding gems that are like missing pieces of our human collective historical record and thinking, ‘this is important and this is going to be lost for all time if I don’t write this article right now.’”

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight

Photo: Victor Grigas

***

Tolich has only met one of her fellow editors from the Kate Sheppard project in real life. “It’s not really a social place,” she says, referring to the privacy valued by many Wikipedia contributors. The three of her collaborators I interviewed – Shudde, Schwede66, and Gadfium – requested that their offline identities be kept private. Each has a different area of interest when it comes to editing; Shudde’s is rugby, Schwede66’s is the European Rowing Championships, and Gadfium’s is New Zealand localities and Māori topics (he once helped create pages for the world’s continents written entirely in te reo).

The Kate Sheppard project was devised during a meeting between Gadfium and Tolich while she was interning at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Shudde and Schwede66 became involved after Gadfium posted about it on the New Zealand Wikipedians noticeboard.

Shudde, who has helped upgrade ten articles about male rugby players to featured status, admits that he’s “a bit guilty” of perpetuating Wikipedia’s gender imbalance and is trying to edit more neglected pages. His main contribution to the Kate Sheppard article has been copy-editing in preparation for the gruelling featured article assessment process.

Once it’s ready, the page will be posted on a forum to be publically scrutinised by other editors. “The article has to be written to a professional standard,” he says. “Some of the comments are about incredibly little things like, ‘that hyphen is supposed to be a dash.’ It’s quite intimidating when you first do it but you just try not to take it personally.”

Wikipedia’s featured article candidate page lists dozens of articles awaiting assessment, from The Canterbury Tales to Final Destination 3, many with painstakingly detailed feedback. One critique on an article about Deep Space Homer – the season five episode of The Simpsons in which Homer joins Buzz Aldrin on a NASA space expedition – suggests that all footnotes referencing the episode’s DVD audio commentary should include specific time codes.

***

For Shudde, the most difficult thing about contributing to female biographies can be the lack of sources.  Judith Devaliant’s Kate Sheppard: a Biography is the only comprehensive account of her life and has been out of print since 1992. “It’s not just about who edits Wikipedia, it’s also about what’s available”, he says.

He uses the example of Farah Palmer – the retired rugby player who led the Black Ferns for nine years and holds the record for most appearances as captain. “She’s like the Richie McCaw of female rugby, but if you Google her there’s really not much information at all. There are certainly no biographies if you go to Whitcoulls, and so just finding information is actually a real challenge. It’s not just about systematic bias on Wikipedia, it’s about systematic bias that exists generally.”

Stephenson-Goodknight says this problem is especially pronounced when writing biographies for pre-20th century women. “Much less was written about women in general,” she says. “While there might be two paragraphs about a man there will be one about a woman. While the two paragraphs about a man will focus only on his education and career, the one paragraph about a woman will also mention the name of her husband and that she had three children.”

Despite this, she takes solace in the incremental changes underway to Wikipedia’s culture. “I think we’re the first generation to actually talk about who the editor of the encyclopaedia is. Did they talk about that during Encyclopaedia Britannica days, or during the encyclopaedias that preceded that? No, they didn’t. And they certainly didn’t talk about the content being much more heavily weighted on men.”

During our interview, Stephenson-Goodknight realises it’s January 15th – the date of Wikipedia’s 17th birthday. “In another 17 years from now, there’ll be more balance in whatever the encyclopaedia of that day is,” she says. “I take the long view. It will happen, it just hasn’t happened in the first 17 years.”

 


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Tom is a Wellington-based writer.
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