What’s missing from the media discussions of Wikipedia categories and sexism

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Last week the New York Times published an Op-Ed from author Amanda Filipacchi headlined Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists, in which she criticized Wikipedia for moving some authors from the “American novelists” category into a sub-category called “American women novelists.” Because there is no subcategory for “American male novelists,” Filipacchi saw the change as reflecting a sexist double standard, in which ‘male’ is positioned as the ungendered norm, with ‘female’ as a variant.

I completely understand why Filipacchi was outraged. She saw herself, and Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Judy Blume, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Higgins Clark, and many others, seemingly downgraded in the public record and relegated to a subcategory that she assumed would get less readership than the main one. She saw this as a loss for American women novelists who might otherwise be visible when people went to Wikipedia looking for ideas about who to hire, to honor, or to read.

In the days following, other publications picked up the story, and Filipacchi wrote two followup pieces — one describing edits made to her own biography on Wikipedia following her first op-ed, and another rebutting media stories that had positioned the original categorization changes as the work of a lone editor.

For me–as a feminist Wikipedian–reading the coverage has been extremely interesting. I agree with many of the criticisms that have been raised (as I think many Wikipedians do), and yet there are important points that I think have been missing from the media discussions so far.

In Wikipedia, like any large-scale human endeavor, practice often falls short of intent.

Individuals make mistakes, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t call into question the usefulness or motivations of the endeavor as a whole. Since 2011, Wikipedia has officially discouraged the creation of gender-specific subcategories, except when gender is relevant to the category topic. (One of the authors of the guideline specifically noted that it is clear that any situation in which women get a gendered subcategory while men are left in the ungendered parent category is unacceptable.) In other words, the very situation Filipacchi decries in her op-ed has been extensively discussed and explicitly discouraged on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a continual work-in-progress. It’s never done.

In her original op-ed, Filipacchi seems to assume that Wikipedians are planning to move all the women out of the American Novelists category, leaving all the men. But that’s not the case. There’s a continuous effort on Wikipedia to refine and revise categories with large populations, and moving out the women from American Novelists would surely have been followed by moving out the satirical novelists, or the New York novelists, or the Young Adult novelists. I’d argue it’s still an inappropriate thing to do, because women are 50 percent of the population, not a variant to the male norm. Nevertheless the move needs to be understood not as an attack on women, but rather, in the context of continuous efforts to refine and revise all categories.

Wikipedia is a reflection of the society that produces it.

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, and as such it reflects the cultural biases and attitudes of the general society. It’s important to say that the people who write Wikipedia are a far larger and vastly more diverse group than the staff of any newsroom or library or archive, past or present. That’s why Wikipedia is bigger, more comprehensive, up-to-date and nuanced, compared with any other reference work. But with fewer than one in five contributors being female, gender is definitely Wikipedia’s weak spot, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it would fall victim to the same gender-related errors and biases as the society that produces it.

Are there misogynists on Wikipedia? Given that anyone with internet access can edit it, and that there are roughly 80,000 active editors (those who make at least 5 edits per month on Wikimedia projects), it would be absurd to claim that Wikipedia is free of misogyny. Are there well-intentioned people on Wikipedia accidentally behaving in ways that perpetuate sexism? Of course. It would be far more surprising if Wikipedia were somehow free of sexism, rather than the reverse.

Which brings me to my final point.

It’s not always the case, but in this instance the system worked. Filipacchi saw something on Wikipedia that she thought was wrong. She drew attention to it. Now it’s being discussed and fixed. That’s how Wikipedia works.

The answer to bad speech is more speech. Many eyes make all bugs shallow. If you see something on Wikipedia that irks you, fix it. If you can’t do it yourself, the next best thing is to do what Filipacchi did — talk about it, and try to persuade other people there’s a problem. Wikipedia belongs to its readers, and it’s up to all of us to make it as good as it possibly can be.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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What’s missing?

Wikipedia also tries to make available the information that people want. There are large numbers of feminists, any one of whom may want to quickly look up “American female novelists”. Whereas a search for “American male novelists” is much less likely.
So, ironically, while it might not have been the best choice, the purpose may have been to facilitate feminism.

Well, one can always create lists of fe/male novelists, butlers, dentists or whoever. It still makes much more sense to stick to subcategories that are relevant for the category. [[Category:Crime novelists]] is better than [[Category:Blue-eyed novelists]].

Yes, I agreed with this. And I feel that it’s actually a larger falling of the Mediawiki categorisation system: really top level categories need to show all articles *and* the sub categories. You get similarly weird situations with musicians where really important people are hidden three subcategories in.

I was talking about you and the rest of the WMF, Sue.

You’re kidding right? The most likely search is for ‘American novelists’, which would leave the reader thinking that women didn’t write novels.

The system hasn’t worked, as evidenced by the Talk pages on the subject and the fact that the prime offender in this particular case continues to recategorize women novelists. He has stridently defended his position, and has several vocal backers. The system cannot be claimed to have worked until the discriminatory category is eliminated. The problem is not “fixed”. It is simply well-known.

Funny: I remember a debate in the german language Wikipedia depending this theme – but in an other direction. There die female/feminist authors had critizised, that all the female authors are together with the male and the Category is named with the “generic masculinum”.
What ever we do, somone will be there to dislike it. Wikipedia isn’t (sorry, I don’t know an english word for ist) “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eierlegende_Wollmilchsau)

Hi Corinne, There are currently around 397 categories under the Women writers tree (click here for a full list: http://toolserver.org/~magnus/catscan_rewrite.php?depth=20&categories=Women+writers&ns%5B14%5D=1&sortby=title&doit=1.) Are you suggesting we get rid of *all* of those “discriminatory categories”, or just the American women novelists, since it’s been in the press? Or we could go broader, and delete all of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Women_by_occupation, which has almost 5000 categories, from Yemeni female singers to Women state legislators from Alabama to Egyptian queens regnant. (Men by occupation has around 6000). Do you really think that would be in the best interests of the wiki to delete these? What is it, exactly,… Read more »

@Obiwan: I’ve seen plenty of your comments in the talk discussions (which I’ve been closely following for the last few days). I see that a consensus has been reached at this point. I won’t respond to your wall of text, save for this: > What is it, exactly, that makes a category “discriminatory”? Many factors can determine whether a category is discriminatory, but in this particular case, discriminatory effect can be easily seen when a categorization leaves a non-gender specific category (such as “American novelists”) populated primarily by men, implying that male writers are the default and likewise implying that… Read more »

Ok, suppose American novelists had been fully diffused to by-century cats (e.g. 20th century novelists, 19th century novelists, etc), and all authors were placed in one of those cats – so there were no articles in the parent. Does American women novelists suddenly become non-discriminatory? That’s again a form of reverse-retroactive-sexism – a category can become less discriminatory not based on the nature of the cat (e.g. its name, its target contents) or where it’s placed in the tree (parent/child relationships), but instead can be based on the behavior of editors around that category. Which is why I think the… Read more »

The category of American Women Novelists is itself a discriminatory one, so long as there is no corresponding American Men Novelists. And to be honest, having both categories is somewhat ridiculous. They’ll still both be huge, and do nothing to diffuse the parent category. In your scenario, if we categorize novelists according to time frame, I assume that it is done irrespective of gender. If so, then there is no gender discrimination or creation of a sense of “other.” To me it could not be more obvious that the practice of placing women apart as an “other” is also discriminatory.… Read more »

I believe Obiwan means this quiz. Interesting.

Hi Corinne. Thanks for your response. My first !vote in the CFD was to propose exactly that – if we ever create a ‘women’ category, create one for men too, and diffuse everyone into either one (we’d also have to create one – or more – 3rd gender cats for intersex/transgender/genderqueer/etc). However, I gave up that fight, as I don’t think I could ever get consensus around it as a general approach. To date we’ve been able to maintain men/women cats for actors, models, and some sports, since gender is clearly defining in either direction for these roles. However, if… Read more »

[…] What’s missing from the media discussions of Wikipedia categories and sexism […]

[…] Wikimedia Executive Director, Sue Gardner, posted this piece on the issue: What’s missing from the media discussions of Wikipedia categories and sexism […]

Since you penned this blog post, would you please answer some of the comments?

Some worthwhile comments on this statement in The Daily Dot: http://www.dailydot.com/society/wikipedia-sexism-problem-sue-gardner/ The Daily Dot writer takes particular issue with the claim that Wikipedians are “a vastly more diverse group than the staff of any newsroom or library or archive, past or present”. He says, citing a Wikipedia Survey, “That statement is demonstrably false: Wikipedia is overwhelmingly young, white, and male. Its users are as diverse as the readership of Maxim.” He also challenges the somewhat odd assertion that Filipacchi’s going to the press, and Wikipedians then responding to the public controversy, prove that the system works. “If that’s the system,… Read more »

The only thing that needs emphasising here is what Obi-Wan said last: subcategories based on gender, ethnicity, religion and sexuality (GERS) should never be diffusing. In other words, anyone put into such a category should also be in the non-GERS-specific parent category – whether it is a male feminist, a woman novelist, or an African-American poet. Note that current Wikipedia practice with respect to the issue of race/ethnicity is just as problematic as the women’s categorisation issue. Many African-Americans and members of other ethnic minorities are currently excluded from neutral categories predominantly populated by whites – just because of the… Read more »

[…] York Times. Ha aperto una discussione rimbalzata su blog e social network. La Wikimedia Foundation ha risposto che gli utenti possono compiere errori e che l’enciclopedia è un ambiente in continua […]

[…] “What’s Missing From the Media Discussions of Wikipedia Categories and Sexism” by Sue Gardner, Wikimedia Blog, May 1, 2013. […]

[…] de Wikipédia visant à (dé)classer les femmes écrivains américaines dans une sous-catégorie  « American Women Novelists » au lieu de la page courante « American Novelists« . L’auteur […]