Wikipedians are Editing the Gender Gap

By Lucy Vernasco

If you walked by room 613 at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago’s Flaxman Library on Saturday, you heard the sounds of furious typing and laughter as a diverse group of students and Chicago residents discussed feminism and the internet.

Chicago residents at Flaxman Library editing Wikipedia
Chicago residents at Flaxman Library editing Wikipedia. (Lucy Vernasco/Medill)

Over the weekend, feminist librarians, artists, art historians and educators – men and women both – stormed the internet’s most popular encyclopedia to empower change. Even those without prior Wikipedia editing experienc, became Wikpedians.  Art + Feminism hosted the 2nd Annual Wikipeda Edit-a-thon to increase the visibility of women on Wikipedia.

“[Wikpedia] has become one of the cultural indexes,” noted Edit-a-Thon organizers Sian Evans, Dorothy Howard, Jacqueline Mabey and Michael Mandiberg in a collective email interview.

“This is where people get their information, and therefore it is important to have it accurately reflect history. Hence, the goal of Art+Feminism is not to value one gender’s contribution over the other, but to address content and participation gaps in the encyclopedia,” they stated. All four are leaders of Art + Feminism.

Why art and feminism as focus topics?

“Wikipedia isn’t a great reference for information about the arts in general – so part of the reason that we are doing what we are doing is because we believe art is important, something that is fundamental to thriving societies,” they said. “Art+Feminism is envisioned as an intervention as both feminists and artists/art workers/art lovers. A contribution of our specific knowledge to the Commons. Yes, it’s about representation as women, but also representation of art histories.”

The Edit-a-Thon identified topics for feminist editing and created  334 new articles worldwide. Some 1,300 volunteers (more than double the number who participated last year) brought 17 countries into the event, according to

Women make up 13 percent of Wikipedia editors, and commentators have pointed out how Wikipedia content reflects the gender gap. In April 2013, novelist Amanda Filipacchi wrote a New York Times Op-Ed about what she views as sexism toward female novelists. Wikipedia editors were moving women alphabetically from the “American Novelist” category to a new “American Women Novelist” category, she pointed out. The process had only gotten through the Bs when Filipacchi’s Op-Ed initiated an online debate about how to combat the move and involve more women in the editing process. The move was abandoned and women restored to the American novelist category.

The late Adrianne Wadewitz, a feminist scholar and Wikipedian, wrote a 2013 blog post on Humanity, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory about the importance of recruiting feminists to edit Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia needs to recruit women, yes, but, more importantly, it needs to recruit feminists,” Wadewitz wrote. “It is feminists – those who have thought about the problems of sexism, have strategies to deal with them, and are willing to engage in such battles, that are willing to challenge the patriarchal structures of knowledge on Wikipedia.  And feminists can be of any gender.”

70 Edit-a-thon satellites over the world

The weekend Edit-a-thon happened to coincide with International Women’s Day, Feminists met in more than 70 venues across the world to help close the gender gap on Wikipedia.

While the event was headquartered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, meet ups in other locations such as Berkeley and Chicago, were able to communicate with other venues through social media.

The leaders of Art + Feminism curated a list of topics for editing and adding new entries that covered women in design, politics, music, mathematics, philosophy and beyond. In addition to assistance from librarians and Wikipedians at the event, editors could learn from training videos. During the collaborative event, Wikipedia editors added photos, citations, references, info boxes, data and headlines, as well as categories.

Librarians from School of The Art Institute in Chicago assisted with the event.
Librarians from School of The Art Institute in Chicago assisted with the event.

Holly Stec Dankert, Head of Research and Access Services at School of The Art Institute in Chicago Flaxman Library, led the satellite edit-a-thon Chicago. Satellite meet-ups were held in major cities and college towns. The participants edited the same content as the editors in New York and curated their own social media content.

“Last year we had heard from other art librarians in New York that they were going to be hosting this event. We work with the people from Art + Feminism and they added us to their page.. We created a Facebook [page]. We’ve had a lot of interest from our own community,” Dankert said.

Dankert said editing a Wikipedia page is not too difficult – even for someone on the first try. She said it helps to look at the Wikitext, Wikipedia’s markup language, on other pages and try to imitate the way a page is set up. Dankert said it is important for women to participate in Wikipedia editing because of the large gender gap.

“It helps restore a balance, even though that might not be an intentional imbalance,” Dankert said. “If you have more of one demography you might loose some perspectives. They might not cover some of the same topics feminist writers, artists, art historians might find important.”

She added that Wikipedias are often covering current events and not as much content is being added to pages on artists and art historians who may be going other routes for publicity.

More than 200 volunteers participated at MoMA while  more than 20 participated in Chicago, with corps of volunteers in other cities across the U.S. With all the new editing and entries, organizers considered the event a success. Volunteers at MoMA alone created more than 36 articles created and edited more than 79 more.