WikiWomen Unite: A Call for Gender Equity in the Wikimedia Movement

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On 20th October 2023, a group of 70+ women and non-binary individuals from around the world convened in New Delhi, India to discuss gender diversity in the Wikimedia movement. Wikipedia attracts around 18 billion pageviews every month, generative AI tools such as ChatGPT have been trained on Wikipedia’s content, and search engines and voice assistants echo Wikipedia’s knowledge base. Wikimedia Commons, a sister project of Wikipedia, is the largest repository of freely licensed images, which powers the multimedia content on Wikipedia. Another sister project is Wikidata, the largest free and collaborative database that contains structured information on various topics, making it easily usable for matching learning and research. Undoubtedly, Wikipedia and its sister projects, available in 300+ languages, are shaping the way that knowledge is curated, consumed, and presented before the world. The Wikimedia movement, which encompasses all of these, aims to become the essential infrastructure in the ecosystem of free knowledge by the year 2030.

Why did women and non-binary individuals, including volunteers, paid staff and other stakeholders of the Wikimedia movement, come together in New Delhi to discuss gender?

Research shows that less than 20% of all biographies on Wikipedia are about women. Among the Wikipedia editors who create Wikipedia’s knowledge, approximately 15-20% are women. Women constitute only around 30% of the readers of English Wikipedia, with the numbers being lower for women readers from developing countries. There hasn’t been research around Wikipedia’s donors so far, but given the gender pay gap, it is likely that fewer women donate to Wikipedia than men. Similarly, it is likely that fewer women receive grants for pursuing projects for improving Wikimedia projects, although the gender-specific numbers are not publicly available. However, more women than men participate in Wiki Edu, the initiative that engages students and academics to improve Wikipedia. There isn’t sufficient data about the gender diversity of the developers (who create and maintain the platform and tools), external partners (who engage by donating content, funds, and other resources), organizers (who conduct events for recruiting editors), researchers (who conduct research and create metrics), and communicators (who communicate about news related to Wikimedia, particularly on social media), which is where there is plenty of scope for further research. The WikiWomenCamp in New Delhi, with its slogan “Map up, Rise up”, intended to map the issues affecting women in the Wikimedia movement and provide the necessary skills and training for women to rise as leaders in the movement. 

What happens when women participate less in the knowledge creation process on Wikimedia projects?

The biases present on Wikimedia projects can have ramifications beyond the platform. The biases on Wikimedia could lead to perpetuation of existing stereotypes, the favoring of traditionally male-dominated viewpoints, the erasure or sidelining of feminist perspectives, and the omission of concepts and ideas that are important for women and non-binary individuals. The lack of gender diversity on Wikimedia projects can create a feedback loop where a lack of women’s readership can lead to fewer female contributors, which in turn results in less content for/about women. An underrepresentation of women on Wikimedia projects translates to fewer women leaders in the Wikimedia movement, where a lack of relevant women role models further decreases women’s participation.

Acknowledging these challenges and in a mission to find solutions for the same, the women and non-binary individuals on Wikimedia projects met face-to-face and online for the third iteration of WikiWomenCamp (the first one was in 2012, and the second in 2017) in October 2023. The participants were divided into two cohorts based on their experience level and interest in strategizing for the Wikimedia movement: the beginners were invited to participate in the capacity-building cohort to gain the skills and networking essential for becoming future leaders, while the others were invited to join the strategy cohort to ideate on the advancement and future of gender diversity in the Wikimedia movement. The rest of this article deals with a summary of the discussions and deliberations that happened at the Strategy cohort sessions.

If you can’t measure it, it does not exist.

On the collective understanding that one cannot solve a problem without acknowledging and quantifying it, a significant part of the discussions at the WikiWomenCamp were surrounding research related to gender diversity. So, the research subgroup of the program committee of the WikiwomenCamp, that includes the author of this article, sought to find out everything we know so far about gender in the Wikimedia movement, knowing completely well that it is impossible to gather every piece of learning that has happened in 300+ languages in the last 22 years related to gender. Here is a summary of what we found:

Readers: On Wikipedia, readers tend to read articles about people of similar demographics (gender and age) to them, which makes it important that there is adequate representation of women of all ages in all languages. In every part of the world, men tend to read Wikipedia more often than women. Men also read more articles when they visit Wikipedia than women. 

Participants: Time and again, researchers have shown that there is an alarmingly low proportion of women contributing to Wikimedia projects. However, there is some room for hope. Newcomers are more likely than earlier to identify as women and gender diverse than seasoned editors on Wikipedia, indicating that there is a steady increase in diversity among editors. Unfortunately, they are also more likely to indicate having felt unsafe on wiki. Despite the challenges, they contributed to Wikipedia because they strongly identified with Wikipedia’s mission for free knowledge, wanted to share what they knew with the world, or wanted to hone their writing and researching skills. 

Content: While Wikipedias in nearly every language have less number of articles about women compared to men, Wikipedia is likely to have more content and quantity of women’s biographies than traditional encyclopedias. This gender gap spills over to Wikidata, where a larger gender gap exists in large language communities, with the gap narrowing over time. Articles with more interwiki links are likely to be about men, and there is a social bias on Wikipedia to assume male as the standard gender of the subject. Words related to family life, such as ‘marriage’ and ‘children’ are more likely to be associated with articles related to women, while career-related words are more linked with men’s biographies. There is also a gender gap in terms of images on Wikipedia, with articles related to men having more images compared to those of women. Similarly, publications by women are less cited on Wikipedia than expected. 

Policies and practices: Women’s gender plays an important role in their perceived significance on Wikipedia, aggravating the long chain of historical inequalities and marginalizations in which women’s qualifications and achievements are undervalued. Activist editors and trainers of gender gap campaigns have often noted harassment existing on Wikipedia and the difficulty in navigating through the large corpus of Wikipedia’s policies, which are not newcomer-friendly. The reliability guidelines on Wikipedia have also been criticized for excluding the complex, lived experiences of several communities. As a result, only a small number of privileged editors get to decide what content is reliable for Wikipedia.

How to make it easy to discover gender research in the Wikimedia movement?

The participants of the WikiWomenCamp ideated on how and where to collate all the research related to gender in the Wikimedia movement sustainably and comprehensively. Ideas that emerged consisted of: creating a research repository on meta-wiki (a sister project for planning and documentation about the Wikimedia movement), integrating the content with Listeria (a self-updating list of selected content), and showcasing the content in The Wikipedia Library (a database of resources available to Wikipedians). 

How to support the research community studying gender diversity in the Wikimedia movement?

Several initiatives exist to support gender researchers in the Wikimedia movement, including recurrent events such as annual workshops and Research Showcases. The Wikimedia Research Fund provides funds to do research related to Wikimedia. Open datasets are available for anyone interested in pursuing research related to Wikimedia’s content, readers and participants. The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that supports Wikimedia projects, has made a strong commitment to support research surrounding knowledge gaps and knowledge integrity, including gender research.

How do we integrate the coordinated efforts of everyone working on the issue of gender in the Wikimedia movement?

The participants discussed creating a ‘Hub’ surrounding “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”, an organizational unit that would encompass resources related to increasing diversity in the Wikimedia movement. The scope and mission of the Hub is currently under discussion, with some participants suggesting that a broader focus on “diversity” would reduce the focus on gender issues. The participants also discussed the idea of having a “Gender Task Force” within the Hub, that specifically addresses the gender gap. Further discussion regarding the constitution and design of the Hub is underway.

What are some of the goals for advancing the cause of gender diversity in the Wikimedia movement in the coming two years?

The participants suggested creating tighter social networks between women and allies by having monthly/bi-weekly conference calls, mentoring programs, meet-ups, social media groups and support networks/safe spaces for women with sensitive needs. Exchange programs, annual trainings, hardware donation programs, training courses and grants for women and non-binary individuals were suggested for skill development and knowledge exchange. 

Link to the original image here. Caption: Participants of the WikiWomen Camp in 2023. Image courtesy: Sumita Roy Dutta, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The recent WikiWomenCamp in New Delhi was more than just a gathering—it was a clarion call for gender equity in the Wikimedia movement. With the underrepresentation of women in various facets of the movement, from content to contributors, the ramifications of this disparity ripple through the digital landscape of today. Knowledge is power, and when that knowledge is skewed or incomplete, it perpetuates stereotypes, omits significant narratives, and side-steps invaluable feminist perspectives. These biases, if unchecked, might color the foundational knowledge on which AI tools, search engines, and voice assistants are built. As we delve deeper into the realm of free knowledge, it is important to ensure that this knowledge is inclusive, diverse, and representative of all. Through proactive initiatives, focused research, and the passionate endeavors of WikiWomenCamp participants, there is hope that the future of the Wikimedia movement will witness a shift towards a more gender-balanced platform.

After all, our future relies on the stories we tell today.

Edited and proofread by Nazia Akhtar and Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, members of the Program Committee, WikiWomenCamp 2023.

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