When I was a journalism student, Soledad O’Brien was one of my heroes, so getting a comment from her for this blog post was both exciting and sobering. Even this defiant newscaster, who refused advice to change her ethnically mixed name for the sake of television, butts heads with the gender gap on Wikipedia.
Personally, I see it every day.
As a member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Communications team, I post biographies from Wikipedia on Facebook, Twitter, and the Wikimedia Blog. I post about inventors of cinema, a philosopher who laughed to death, and a musician who turned the world a little more purple with his music and very blue with his death.
You might notice that all of those examples were men. There’s no harm in posting about a man, in and of itself—but when you add it up, you find that as of 2016, only about one in six Wikipedia biographies were of women. High-quality biographies about women, especially those in fields outside of the entertainment industry, are relatively scarce.
Our Facebook page, followed by 5.5 million people, reflects this in its audience. Of those 5.5 million, 71 percent are men to 29 percent women (as of March). We gained more men than women even during Women’s History Month in 2015—an additional 54,615 of them, to be precise. If we lose ground then, when can we possibly make a dent in the gender gap of our Facebook fan base?
Why does that matter? Facebook is where we reach people who like Wikipedia, but may not yet be aware of the Wikimedia movement, how it works, and ways to get involved. It’s a window into our movement disguised as a showcase of our content. Last year’s Women’s History Month, seemingly a perfect opportunity to post about and reach women, was a disappointment. Posting profiles about notable women to a heavily male audience drew catcalls and even death threats.
We have our work cut out for us when it comes to building an inclusive environment that welcomes everyone, regardless of gender. We can do better—and we did, with some help from Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, the 2016 co-Wikipedian of the Year. When we featured Rosie in an experimental Facebook post promoted to women during December’s English-language fundraiser, we weren’t quite sure what would happen. At worse, we expected to get at least some likes for the post. But then something unusual happened: more than 1,400 women followed our page. Any page that would promote Rosie was apparently good enough for them, and it showed that we weren’t reaching women who wanted to like us, who wanted to join the Wikimedia movement in their own way.
This led us to a simple question: if a promoted post of Rosie alone could make a difference in our demographics, what would happen if we spent all of Women’s History Month promoting posts of biographies of women? Could a modest budget of less than $50 a day break through to women we weren’t reaching?
We asked the Facebook community for suggestions and featured notable women from more than 20 nations. One of those women was Mónica Mayer, an artist and activist who co-founded Mexico’s first feminist art collective, whom we featured on March 24. In 2015, Mayer took her first foray into Wikipedian culture by organizing an editathon to improve biographies of Mexican women feminists and artists last year. A gender-gap activist adding articles about women to the Spanish Wikipedia.
We posted about remarkable women all month—and not all were saintly. We posted about teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, but also deadly accurate Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. We posted about controversial writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi and Ayn Rand.
Of course, we received some of the same old derailing questions we used to, like “when is Men’s History Month?” (Note: International Men’s Day is in November, as you can learn on Wikipedia. The article is more than 7,000 words longer than Women’s History Month, and nearly 6,000 words more than International Women’s Day.)
If you read that question a dozen times, it may make you question your faith in what you’re doing. Luckily we spoke to journalist Leslie Stahl, who urged young women especially to find work that resonates with them.
Further encouragement came from Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube who was once described by Time as the most powerful woman on the internet.
Here at the Wikimedia Foundation, we don’t have the power to legally modify dollar bills. (Although as a non-profit, we gladly accept them.) But we can support Wikimedians like Rosie when they organize edit-a-thons, and we can help increase visibility for inspirational projects like WikiProject Women in Red.
Still, while the motives may be there, did it work? Did all of this effort help close the gender gap by even a little bit in our Facebook audience? We weren’t sure what to expect. When you have 5.5 million followers, making a good-sized dent would require a lot of people. Our worst fear was that we would lose ground again, like in 2015.
That didn’t happen. In this year’s Women’s History Month, the gender gap on Wikipedia’s Facebook page shrank by 100,224 – we picked up that many more women fans than men during March. And the conversations about women’s history changed dramatically as women liked, shared, and commented on the page 30 percent more than men, a 70 percent change from the month before.
A social media campaign does not magically “fix” the gender gap on Wikipedia. As of publishing time, we’re still 68% percent men to 32% percent women. Still, we feel it makes clear improvements. Changing the conversation within our community—making Wikipedia feel less like a “boy’s club” and more like a free market of knowledge—invites more critique, more collaboration, and more participation.
Aubrie Johnson is a social media associate on the Wikimedia Foundation’s communications team. If you follow us on Twitter and Facebook, you have read her writing many times.
The images of O’Brien, Stahl, and Wojcicki are all courtesy of the respective subjects. The image of Mónica Mayer is by Iván Martinez/Wikimedia Mexico, CC BY-SA 4.0. The images in the gif are all in the public domain.
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