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Wikipedia needs more women

Ninety percent of Wikipedia contributors are male, and this imbalance is reflected in the site’s content. Wikimedia France programme director Adrienne Alix wants to encourage more women to participate in the online encyclopaedia.

DiscovHER: Could you tell us a bit about your career background, and your job at Wikimedia?

Adrienne Alix: I’m director of partnerships and institutional relations at Wikimédia France. I first became involved with Wikimedia in early 2006, as a voluntary contributor to Wikipedia when I was doing a doctorate in the history of religion.

I contributed a great deal to various Wikimedia projects, and I still do, but I also began working with Wikimédia France in late 2007, again on a voluntary basis. I was elected to the board, and then became president in March 2009. I spent two years initiating or taking an active part in all of the association’s projects, and set up several important partnerships with cultural institutions.

In 2011, we decided to set up a salaried team and I was recruited as the assistant director of programmes. These days I’m more specifically involved in developing partnerships and institutional relations.

D/H: What exactly is Wikimédia France?

A.A: It’s the association that supports and promotes the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and all Wikimedia projects in France. It’s a nonprofit body with between 400 and 500 members.

•We contact bodies such as libraries, museums, government departments and local authorities that might provide free content for Wikimedia projects, and help to digitise and upload this. 

•We train new project contributors, talk to the French media, and promote projects at trade fairs, conferences, exhibitions and various public events. 

•We give presentations to students, teachers, librarians and anyone else who might be interested, and discuss partnerships with other organisations to supply material and publish or distribute content.

D/H: It’s estimated that 90% of Wikipedia contributors are male. Is this disparity having a negative influence on some articles? Do you have any examples of subjects that aren’t given enough coverage?

A.A: One of the founding principles of Wikipedia is that articles must be written from a neutral viewpoint. In theory, an imbalance between men and women shouldn’t have an influence on the content.

So although there are no differences in the content of articles by male or female contributors, at least no very obvious ones, it does affect the subjects we cover. I have to say the small number of female contributors is a problem, and some subjects which have traditionally been more of a male preserve are over-represented compared to those seen as more ‘female’.

It’s hard to draw a clear line between ‘female’ and ‘male’ subjects, but some of them, relating to things like the status of women, women’s literature, fashion, and work traditionally done by women, are not getting enough coverage.

D/H: How can Wikimedia encourage women to contribute more? What kind of initiatives are you taking in France and abroad?

A.A: We only became aware of the gender gap in the Wikimedia movement relatively recently, because one of the tacit rules is that you can be anonymous or use a pseudonym. It’s not immediately obvious whether a contributor is male or female, and our philosophy has been to focus on the content rather than the writer’s personal characteristics. But we’ve carried out several surveys showing that there’s a huge disparity between men and women throughout the world, so the Wikimedia Foundation, which hosts Wikimedia projects, joined forces with local contributors’ associations to promote contributions by and about women. 

A couple of years ago, we organised contributors’ workshops around the world, mainly in English-speaking countries, to encourage contributions by women and create more awareness of the issue. The Wikimedia movement has also been reflecting on the reasons why there are so few female writers.

We haven’t done anything specifically on this subject in France before, but we’re now organising a Women in Science edit-a-thon in cooperation with the L’Oréal Foundation.

D/H: Female scientists have been out of the limelight for a long time. How can you give them greater visibility on Wikipedia?

A.A: We need to place greater emphasis on the subjects, the female scientists who have traditionally been sidelined, but without deviating from Wikipedia rules. This is quite a complex problem, because women have historically been given less attention, and there are fewer publications and other sources available about them, so they shouldn’t necessarily have a presence on Wikipedia either. We need to seek out good sources and actively promote important women scientists who haven’t had much Wikipedia coverage.

One solution is to hold workshops for contributors. They also need to be aware of the need to give these women greater visibility without being political, which would be a breach of Wikipedia rules. Obtaining specialist sources is a major issue in increasing their visibility: there are fewer sources than for many male scientists, they’re less easily accessible, and they need to be particularly highlighted.

D/H: Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for those of our readers who haven’t yet contributed to Wikipedia?

A.A: Just go for it! When you see how big Wikipedia is, it’s hard to know where to start. One of our reviews on the limited number of female contributors showed that women engage in a form of self-censorship: they don’t share their knowledge on Wikipedia because they think other people know more than they do. This is clearly less of an issue for men. The rule on Wikipedia is that we treat contributions based on their merit, not on the person at the keyboard. Everyone starts out with no idea about how to contribute, so it’s a level playing field. 

So get stuck in. Start by clicking the Edit tab at the top of the article, correct a factual mistake or a punctuation error, try to improve a paragraph or a whole article, find some sources and write a biography. Ask other contributors for help, follow their example, use them for inspiration.

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