“People Who Can Take It”: How Women Wikipedians Negotiate & Navigate Safety

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The first time Helena* — a scientist and published author — edited Wikipedia, her edit was immediately reverted: “It was not only reverted,” she recalled, “it was reverted with a ‘You don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground’ kind of a note.”

But she persisted. She created a new account, read Wikipedia’s policies, and continued to contribute. When another user blanked Helena’s Wikipedia user page — deleting content she had written and leaving her a death threat — administrators refused to act. At this point, Helena decided it was time for a break: “I took a hiatus. I told everybody to just basically go shove it. ‘I may never come back to Wikipedia’ is what the message says; ‘I’ll think about it.’”

Today, Helena has been editing Wikipedia for more than 14 years. When asked to reflect on her earliest experiences, she replied, “There’s a wonderful phrase. I culled it out the other day. I put it in a little file folder to share with you. ‘We throw brand new potential editors directly into shark-infested waters, then yell at them for splashing at the sharks.’”

In our paper People Who Can Take It: How Women Wikipedians Negotiate and Navigate Safety, we wade into these “shark-infested waters,” asking how women Wikipedians like Helena remain in the community as active participants even when they feel unsafe, or are ignored or admonished when they seek help.

Note: Our paper is a qualitative study and, thus, is not intended to be generalizable. Also, some Wikipedia editors have criticized our study for containing “outdated” data, but qualitative work is time-consuming, and academic research requires a lengthy peer review process that does not allow for immediate publication.


  • Wikipedia is written primarily by men. This unequal division of labor in social systems is known as the gender gap.
  • Women who edit Wikipedia have different perspectives about the gender gap, but many have witnessed or experienced harassment. [1]
  • Experienced women Wikipedians have developed sophisticated tactics to participate in the community even when they feel unsafe.
  • Based on our conversations with experienced women Wikipedians, we share three provocations for designing safer spaces: (1) when aiming for inclusivity, consider safety a design requirement; (2) recognize your own assumptions and biases about safety; (3) provide users with tools for creating their own safe spaces.

Our Research

We interviewed 25 women who are experienced Wikipedia editors.

There’s this one guy who is part of the chapter here that was, for a while, posting date invitations on my talk page, that would say how much he wanted to spend time with me. Then it became a thing at edit‑a‑thons that he would attend too, where I felt like he was harassing me.

Mia, editing for 5 years

Wikipedia is more than a website. It’s a community stretching across the globe and made up of a multiplicity of online and offline spaces, many of which are porous. Each of these spaces — article talk pages, internet relay chat (IRC), edit-a-thons, meetups, conferences — has its own character, which is shaped by design affordances as well as community norms and values. Interactions in these different parts of Wikipedia, as Mia notes, often bleed across these sociotechnical boundaries — often without consent or control.


I’m not an administrator and don’t want to be. Editors who work in topics which are perennially under assault […] often burn out for periods, sometimes permanently. I have tremendous admiration for those who have taken on the Sisyphean task […] I couldn’t do that work.

Oona, editing for 12 years

Women Wikipedians have developed sophisticated tactics to sustain their participation as community members even when they feel unsafe among their peers. For women like Oona, choosing what work to avoid is one way to protect themselves. For other women, choosing what to edit (for example, avoiding controversial topics) is another way to manage their participation so that they can “avoid drama” and its associated harassment risks.


We don’t feel safe on Wiki. Not all of us, but a lot of us don’t, so why keep doing this on Wiki when we can take it another place […] ?

Jenn, editing for 12 years

Because Wikipedia does not allow users to create exclusive online spaces (e.g., women-only), women like Jenn have created or joined private groups on Facebook to cultivate and promote safe peer engagement. These spaces allow participants to share their personal experiences as well as their ideas about editing and other ways of participating bravely in the Wikipedia community. We take from these examples the need for designers to consider safety as a design requirement when aiming for inclusivity. This approach, in turn, means recognizing one’s own assumptions and biases when imagining the design of idealized scenarios, but also sometimes translates into the realization that providing users with tools to create their own safe spaces is the best means to ensure the safety of all.


[1] Community Engagement Insights. 2018. Wikimedia Foundation. Wikimedia Meta. Retrieved from https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Community_Engagement_Insights/2018_Report#Experience_of_harassment_has_not_declined_since_2017_and_appears_to_remain_steady


* We’ve used pseudonyms to protect our participants’ identities.

This article summarizes a paper authored by Amanda Menking, Ingrid Erickson, and Wanda Pratt. This paper was presented at CHI 2019, a conference of Human-Computer Interaction.This post was originally published via Medium.

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

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