Over 16 years, Wikipedia has emerged as the leading educational resource on the planet. The English Wikipedia’s five million articles are read by billions of people every month.
Who writes Wikipedia, however, is a different story. In 2008, a study found that Wikipedia, which strives to collect “the sum of all human knowledge,” was falling shockingly short. In the United States, merely 15% of those who contributed to Wikipedia were women.
Since then, the source of the gender gap has fueled significant speculation. Sue Gardner, the previous Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, laid out nine reasons. The New York Times addressed the issue with a roundtable editorial.
Studies were conducted. Most recently, Julia Bear of Stony Brook University’s College of Business, and Benjamin Collier of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, published a paper in the journal Sex Roles exploring why it may be the case. They looked at the experience of women who had tried editing on Wikipedia and stopped.
Here’s what they found: The biggest hurdles to women’s editorship was that they were less confident about their expertise.
Dr. Bear, one of the researchers of this study, told the Harvard Business Review: “That’s one of the reasons that we recommend Wikipedia be more proactive about finding and encouraging contributors, as opposed to depending on an individual’s decision that he or she is the expert in this area and should contribute.”
On that front, Wiki Ed has reported good news: 68% of the students who write for Wikipedia through our Classroom Program are women. That’s led Sue Gardner to describe the Classroom Program as “our single most effective tool for boosting women’s authorship on Wikipedia.”
A 2014 partnership with the National Women’s Studies Association has brought 102 women’s studies courses and more than 2,300 students to Wikipedia.
When women edit Wikipedia through a classroom assignment, they’re empowered to apply knowledge to existing content. They compare what they know with what they know is missing. That, alone, is a powerful experience that develops confidence in their expertise.
But most importantly, they contribute. That isn’t just making an impact on young women’s lives. It’s helping to balance Wikipedia’s representation of “all human knowledge.”
The single most effective tool
At the end of our NWSA partnership’s first year, when students were most actively contributing their work to Wikipedia, students in Wiki Ed-supported courses were contributing 8.5% of that month’s content related to women’s studies. Across our partnership, student editors contributed about 4.3% overall. That’s 4.3% of the new content contributed to a website with one of the most active volunteer bases on Earth.
That marked a 36% increase in student activity in this area from the year before. Our NWSA partnership has had a powerful impact on public knowledge of women’s history, health, and achievements.
Together, we’re helping students fill content gaps that have existed on Wikipedia for nearly 15 years. Though Wikipedia is the encyclopedia “anyone could edit,” not many have. Until now. We’re improving access to information that readers have historically searched for, but not always found.
The idea is simple enough. Women’s Studies instructors assign students to write Wikipedia articles instead of a term paper or essay. Students draw from reliable sources, such as academic presses, journals, and textbooks. They present the information clearly and without attempting to persuade readers to draw certain conclusions.
Students in women’s studies courses have contributed 1.4 million words to Wikipedia, to articles seen 65 million times. They’ve contributed content that brings balance to the content of Wikipedia articles, such as feminist perspectives on sexuality and disability. They’ve contributed content that balances the representation of biographies on Wikipedia, where the highest-quality biographies are more frequently accounts of men’s lives and achievements. Students have contributed articles about notable physicians, public health advocates,philosophers, psychologists, and screenwriters.
It’s meant bringing women into focus, such as this article on women’s education in Iran. Finally, students are bridging gaps to other communities overlooked by Wikipedia, with articles such as LGBTI rights in Nepal.
The experience also presents Wikipedia as a site of critique and analysis. Wikipedia is quite literally a collection of knowledge compiled by, written, and edited by men. Students engage the site with important questions about what information is missing, and what they can add. That’s a valuable opportunity for women to develop “confidence in their expertise” in any field. It’s been a cornerstone of our campaign to bring more women scientists to Wikipedia.
Wiki Ed is focused on improving Wikipedia across the board. Tackling Wikipedia’s gender-based content gaps is one of the most effective methods of improving Wikipedia as a resource for everyone. More biographies of women, more knowledge about women’s health, more knowledge about women’s history: that isn’t just a better encyclopedia for women. It’s a better encyclopedia.
It’s clear that student editors have made an enormous impact. We’re hoping to include still more women’s studies courses in Spring 2017. Wiki Ed provides free online trainings, orientations, and staff time for your students to maximize their contributions to Wikipedia. We have printed guides, free for students in our program, specifically for Editing Wikipedia articles about women’s studies and another for those courses looking to write biographies.
Getting started is simple: send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!