Closing Wikipedia’s Gender Gap

An interview with Wikipedia editor Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight

ByBy now, it’s second nature. When you come across an unfamiliar name, you search for it online. Google’s algorithm typically includes the relevant Wikipedia pages near the top of its search results. But what happens when that person doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry? How does that change your perception of their importance?

For Wikipedia editors like Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, this issue of online visibility — or lack thereof — is closely tied to the number of biographical articles about women on Wikipedia. Back in 2014, Stephenson-Goodknight co-founded the Women in Red movement with a mission to improve the encyclopedia’s coverage of women’s biographies, works by women, and women’s issues. For her efforts, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales presented Stephenson-Goodknight with the 2016 award for Co-Wikipedian of the Year.

As we near the end of Women’s History Month, it’s worth reflecting how Stephenson-Goodknight and her colleagues have affected the content and the culture of the fifth most visited website in the world.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Stephenson-Goodknight by phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you get started editing Wikipedia?

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight: On June 4, 2007, I was in San Francisco, working out of my son Sean’s apartment. I was telecommuting that day instead of being in my office. In the afternoon, I took a break and was searching for things on Wikipedia. I tried to find an article regarding Book League of America, a publisher whose books I collect. But I couldn’t find it. At first, I thought that maybe I misspelled it or the capitalization was wrong, but none of these seemed to be the problem. I thought to myself, “Wow, there’s no article on this subject. How is that possible?”

Here it was, 2007, and I thought there was an article about everything on Wikipedia. Then I remembered that Sean had edited Wikipedia while he was in the Peace Corps. I thought, “If Sean can figure this out, I bet I can, too.” So, I created a username and started the article on Book League of America, and it still exists today.

Once you started editing Wikipedia as a hobby, how long did it take before you were hooked?

I would say that pretty much I was hooked immediately… like I created seven articles that first month. I made my 500th edit within two and half months, including starting the article Arctic Shrinkage (renamed Climate Change in the Arctic), which is by far the most heavily edited and controversial article I ever created. Now it’s 2019, and I’ve made more than 150,000 edits and contributed to more than 1,300 articles featured in the “Did You Know…” section of Wikipedia’s main page. One of my all-time favorite articles would probably be Deolinda Rodrigues Francisco de Almeida, a writer from Angola who corresponded with Martin Luther King Jr.

What is a “red link,” and what’s the connection with the gender gap on Wikipedia?

On Wikipedia, a red link is a hyperlink to an article that does not currently exist. Back in 2014, I met with a group of experienced Wikipedia editors in Washington, D.C., where they challenged us to take action on ideas we had not yet pursued. One idea I had was a WikiProject dedicated to women writers who were “red links,” who did not yet have articles, and I started that project. We now have more than 33,000 articles within our scope: women writers and their works.

“When women were excluded from a profession, we can’t make up for that today.”

In the following year, I was approached by Roger Bamkin, a professor in Britain. He suggested that we collaborate on a conference presentation regarding the content gender gap — how few of Wikipedia’s biographies are about women. Our presentation in July 2015 in Mexico City evolved into WikiProject Women in Red, named after Wikipedia’s “red links,” which are the missing articles.

To our surprise, the idea really took off, and people began writing more articles about women. We use a bot to collect and post our metrics. Five years ago, only about 15 percent of the English-language Wikipedia biographies were about women. Now the number is closer to 17.74 percent. And the project is now active in 13 different language versions, not just English.

That’s substantial progress, but the gap nevertheless seems to be quite pronounced. What are the historical drivers of the gender gap?

There are multiple different parts to this. First, if women were not able to participate in various professions until a certain period of time, there is no article to write. Five hundred years ago, there were almost no women politicians, so there won’t be articles about women politicians from that period, and the same applies to military officers or positions of leadership in various religions. When women were excluded from a profession, we can’t make up for that today.

But when there were women poets, musicians, educators, scientists, and activists in the historical record, they should be included in Wikipedia. This is knowledge equity. The issue is that once women become involved in various occupations, they often received less coverage in written publications than their male counterparts. For example, in STEM occupations, when women and men worked side by side with each other for years, there can be an issue of who was credited for what was accomplished: “He who writes the history books wins.”

Gender bias on Wikipedia received media attention last year when Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics and — at the time of her award — did not have a Wikipedia page. Would you say she should have had a Wikipedia entry earlier?

Absolutely. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. Someone created a Wikipedia page for Donna Strickland before she won the Nobel Prize, but the volunteers in the Articles for Creation community decided that it did not meet the notability requirements to become an article on Wikipedia, because it lacked a sufficient number of third-party references. So, the article did not get published until after she received her Nobel.

What do you see as the future for Wikipedia?

I would say that we are still in our infancy, and that’s because I take a very long view for the Wikimedia movement. I don’t think in terms of five years, 15 years, 55 years. I think in terms of 155 years, 555 years.

Could you expand on that? What is your 555-year vision for Wikipedia?

A long time ago, I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation science-fiction series, in which the character Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian. Hari crunched large data sets in order to predict far into the future. Using these probabilities, he predicted that humanity was doomed and that there would be tens of thousands of years of chaos. But if he made certain changes, then those dark ages would last only a thousand years.

One of the things Hari did to reduce the period of chaos was develop a planet in a distant galaxy that was populated by scientists and their families to work on the Encyclopedia Galactica, which would be the sum of all human knowledge.

I see this as a sort of parallel universe, so much so that I used to say at conferences that I’m wearing an invisible bracelet that said “WWHSD?,” which stood for “What Would Hari Seldon Do?” Eventually, my co-Wikipedian of the year, Emily Temple-Wood, gave me an actual bracelet with those letters, so my bracelet is no longer invisible.

How does this type of long-term thinking apply to the issue of gender equity specifically?

It connects to both our vision and our strategy. Once Wikidata became part of our lives, I could see a parallel — large data sets can be a source for good for mankind. When we think about gender equity, I believe it’s a matter of when we will see a more equitable encyclopedia. And I’m not just talking about English-language Wikipedia… there are 300 other language versions. I am pretty sure that we will not be there in 15 years, but maybe in 55 years, and certainly 555 years from now I project that there will be gender equity — not necessarily in the sense that 50 percent of the biographies will be about women, but we will feel we will have met a standard of equity. That presents a question: If we will be there in 555 years for sure, what can we do now to shorten the time span? What can we do now versus postponing change for another point in time?

I suppose the future-state incarnation of Wikipedia might even be called ‘Encyclopedia Galactica.’ Could you describe a day in the life of Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight?

I edit Wikipedia in the morning, or I edit it at night. It’s like anytime you have a passion for something—you just make the time. I’ve been a visiting scholar for Northeastern University’s Women Writers Project since March 2017, so mostly I concentrate on creating articles within that scope, pre-20th-century women writers and their works. I do a lot of coordination tasks for Women in Red, and there are endless tasks and meetings associated with my membership in various organizations or committee work.

I have a great family and eclectic friends, and I enjoy spending time with them. I love traveling, and I do a lot of that. I live a half-mile down a gravel road in the Sierra Nevada foothills, so nature is right outside my door. There’s a group of Canadian geese who live in my neighborhood six months each year, and I am so happy when I see them on my walks. What else? Every September, my husband and I participate in the Marching Presidents and First Ladies procession in our town’s Constitution Day Parade. I portray Helen Taft.

You spend a lot of time doing volunteer work for Wikipedia. Are there any perks?

First of all, it doesn’t have to be a lot of work. We are all volunteers, so you do as much or as little as you want. No deadlines. No clocking in. No pressure. I’m retired from my career in the health care industry. Now that I’m in my sixties, with grown sons and some grandkids, I think I’m setting a good example that you can still do cool things — meaningful things — later in life, and sometimes you even get recognition for it. But truly, I don’t do it for that reason. I edit Wikipedia because it makes me happy to do so. Go figure.

In 2016, Women in Red and I were shortlisted for the GEM-TECH award by the ITU/United Nations Women. There were more than 300 entries for that award, so being in the top five really made me proud. In May 2018, I was knighted by the Republic of Serbia, in part because of my work on Wikipedia, and partly because I’ve promoted the memory of my grandfather, a Serbian patriot of bygone times. I suspected there would be a sword involved when I was knighted, but instead someone read a paragraph about accomplishments, and then the press took a lot of photos of us with the foreign minister. It was an awesome experience and such an honor. But no sword!

And that’s why you’re now Dame Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight. I expect some readers would be interested in hearing how they might become more involved with Wikipedia or Women in Red.

Start anywhere. Many articles on Wikipedia, especially the shorter ones, could use a bit of improvement. Add a sentence, fix the punctuation, upload a photo. Within the scope of Women in Red — women’s biographies, women’s works, women’s issues—we’ve created more than 300 lists of missing articles. You could do some research on one of these women and try writing an article! There are many in-person edit-a-thon events where you can actually meet other editors, and you might like that instead of editing Wikipedia from your home computer.

Once you start, I hope you stick with it. If you have a negative experience, please don’t give up! There are communities on Wikipedia that can show you the ropes and help you out. We were all new once. I would say it’s worth it if you persevere.

Covering Wikipedia and internet knowledge for @Slate. Attorney. Written for NY Times/WaPo/Atlantic.

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