I'm A Woman Who Works For Sexist Wikipedia

I was once told by a male-identifying editor that women don’t typically enjoy “intellectual discourse.”
Publish date:
March 23, 2015
feminism, gender, wikipedia, Internet Culture

I spend a great deal of time on Wikipedia. If it’s a good day, I’m researching while pretending to be Olivia Pope, synthesizing data and writing new copy based on third party sources. I discuss my work with other editors on Wikipedia until we collectively agree to make changes to an article.

On a bad day, one of those volunteer editors calls me biased and incompetent before deleting what I’ve written. When I click on his user page, I see he’s featured several photos of dripping wet women in bikinis. (Nothing wrong with a bikini, but… context, dude. It’s important.)

Here’s the thing: I love Wikipedia and I’m a feminist. I’ve got the chops: I attended a women’s college, I’ve made people uncomfortable at parties by bringing up gender issues, I’ve read Adrienne Rich’s essays on motherhood, I own (and love) a vibrator and I support intersectional feminism that takes ethnicity, socioeconomic status and the concerns of the trans community into account. Sometimes I even let the errant hair on my chin grow out, because I’ve got more important things to do than tweeze! I just also really, really love Wikipedia, a deeply flawed, contentious and confrontational website.

I know it’s a cesspool of dudes who edit articles in their underwear while waiting for their mothers to make them a snack. But it’s exhilarating to edit pages that will be read by users around the world, and I feel affirmed by the website’s pillars of neutrality, civility and free access to information. The thing is, without women, these pillars threaten to crumble.

Wondering what a website mostly edited by men looks like? In articles describing the plot summaries of films, many refer to a rape scene as a “sex scene.” In some cases, the words “rape” or “assault” are even replaced with the phrase “has sex with her while semi-conscious” or “have an intimate moment.” Currently, the first comment on the discussion page for menstrual cups is, “This whole article is disgusting. Do you realize a little boy could read this?”

Wikipedia is the 7th most visited website in the world, behind Facebook, YouTube and search engines like Google, Yahoo and Baidu. More people look at Wikipedia daily than Twitter. If women don’t start writing for Wikipedia, and if their stories aren’t told, the world will miss out on a vital wealth of information.

In 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit organization behind the website) reported that only 9% of the site’s active editors were female. Of course, this statistic assumed that all female editors had chosen to report their genders online, although many editors hide this information to avoid being harassed or ignored. I identify myself as a woman on the site, but anyone who looked at my edit history could probably deduce that anyway. I’ve created pages for female artists, and I’ve heavily edited pages related to the Seven Sisters colleges. I’ve also covered my user page in tags that declare my space trans-friendly and feminist-leaning, which, believe me, doesn’t get me any brownie points with the editors who have been around a while.

While discussing the issue of encouraging women to edit Wikipedia, I was once told by a male-identifying editor that women don’t typically enjoy “intellectual discourse.” Another said women were probably intimidated by the site’s steep learning curve and “un-user-friendly” interface, and another guy said “Wikipedia editors tend to be geeks” and argued that the “natural order of the world” meant women were simply less likely to be “geeks.” Check out the discussion continuing here, featuring riveting topics like “What’s the big fuss?” and “Enough with the feminism already.”

If you’re still not convinced that editing might be worth your time, check out this video from Wikimedia, which shows students in Cape Town (including girls, obviously) who use the site as an integral part of their education. Don’t girls around the world deserve to get some of their information straight from other women? Isn’t that badass?

Studies have shown that women tend to have less free time than men, which could explain why many of us aren’t volunteering our time to edit the website. If you’re busy conducting studies or writing your novel or raising a kid or running a restaurant, well then, word, I get it. But any woman who values journalism, free access to information, or has any particular interests in culture or history can make a distinct difference by editing Wikipedia. The world is reading these articles, and I believe women should have a role in creating them.

But believe me, carving out a space for yourself can be unpleasant. Just have your sources ready.