How to counterbalance the inequalities women encounter in STEM

ImageFile:Karen Kwon.jpgLightmatterchem, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Youngah (Karen) Kwon is a graduate student at Columbia University and a member of the American Chemical Society who recently completed our Wikipedia professional development course. With a background in physical chemistry and material science, Karen expanded Wikipedia articles on women who have made major contributions to the sciences. Read her reflections about the experience below.

Lately, I have become increasingly frustrated by the way both women and science are discredited. How can I act as a counterbalancing force, I often wondered, while working as a full-time chemistry graduate student? I wanted to contribute, for example, by going to the Wikipedia edit-a-thons on women in science, but repeatedly found myself tied up with hefty lab duties, even on weekends.

So, imagine my excitement when I received a newsletter about Wikipedia Fellows from the American Chemical Society. The Society was recruiting people to learn how to write and improve Wikipedia articles on women scientists through Wiki Education’s unique online course. Multiple friends of mine forwarded me this same opportunity, knowing I have a deep interest in the gender gap in science. To my friends and me, editing the articles on Wikipedia – the fifth most visited website in the world – to improve the visibility of women scientists and their work sounded like the perfect opportunity for me. It also didn’t hurt that all the work could be done remotely via the web; I didn’t have to leave my graduate school work behind.

Once I started Wiki Education’s Women in Science course, it didn’t take me too long to notice the shocking gender gap in Wikipedia, both in the contents and in the number of Wikipedians. Only 17% of the biographies on Wikipedia are about women¹ and less than 20% of the Wikipedia editors are women.² These numbers provided me with extra motivation as I navigated the unfamiliar territory of Wikipedia editing. The wonderful Wiki Education team facilitated the learning process, holding my hands throughout and pointing me in the right direction whenever I got lost. It was also helpful that I could always reach out to the team and other Fellows in the course through a messaging app. With everyone’s help, I was able to write two new biographies of women in science and make numerous edits.

Equipped with better Wikipedia editing knowledge and skills, I came to appreciate the Wikipedia features that I was previously unaware of: the Talk page, where all the behind-the-scenes Wikipedian discussions take place, and the View History page, which offers the history of the article’s development. It was fascinating to learn how each Wikipedia article evolved with time. More importantly, I learned about the vibrant culture of the Wikipedian community, expressing themselves using user pages and forming WikiProjects to achieve common goals. I was excited and encouraged to find Wikipedians all over the globe collaborating to share free knowledge and also to participate in that endeavor myself.

At times, however, I was disappointed that the larger societal inequalities, including the gender gap, are well-reflected on Wikipedia. I was especially troubled by two particular guidelines on Wikipedia that determine who gets to have an article: the guideline on credible sources³ and the guideline on academic notability.⁴ As Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia, it certainly should require its articles to meet these guidelines. Otherwise, people would be able to create a Wikipedia page for, let’s say, their next door neighbor. Yet, it should also be aware that our society as a whole does not value the work of female scientists the same way it does the work of male scientists. There are a number of studies that demonstrate how gender biases undermine women’s work in science. To list a few, (1) the same National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant application gets a lower score when female-sounding name is attached to it,⁵ (2) astronomy papers receive fewer citations when the first authors have female-sounding names, even when the quality of the papers were controlled to be the same,⁶ and (3) science faculty choose to hire male students as lab managers over female students, even when the application materials are the same.⁷ These gender biases in every step of science eventually create a remarkable difference between female and male scientists. As a result, there is less media coverage on the female scientists and the work they do. Subsequently, women scientists also do not win as many awards as their male counterparts, Nobel Prize being the prime example.⁸ These, in turn, lead to a fewer number of biographies of women scientists on Wikipedia, due to the lack of credible sources and proofs of notability.

While the intent of these guidelines is well-meaning, Wikipedians, more than 80% of whom are men themselves, should always be mindful of the gender biases in applying them to biographies of women. Lack of evidence does not necessarily indicate the lack of quality when it comes to evaluating women’s work. Look no further than the recent discussion surrounding the Wikipedia page on Dr. Donna Strickland, the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Wikipedia article on her was created only after she won the Nobel Prize in October, five months after the initial draft was submitted and rejected.⁹ At the time of the draft’s submission, Dr. Strickland did not have any records of winning prestigious awards, and the references on her work that the initial draft provided were not robust enough to meet the Wikipedia guidelines. Therefore, it was completely reasonable that the editor who handled the submission initially declined the article. However, even though the gender bias that prevails in the society is first to blame, Wikipedians should also be conscious of the societal gender bias in play and be wary of it when applying the guidelines for the betterment of the platform. Otherwise, there will be many more incidents like Dr. Strickland’s page in the future.

Overall, I am glad that I was chosen to be a part of the Women in Science course and worked as a Wikipedia Fellow in this tumultuous time. Learning how to edit and create Wikipedia pages and experiencing the culture of Wikipedia was such a joy, especially since all my efforts were put towards a cause that I deeply care about. Even though I pointed out the possible obstacles in closing the gender gap in Wikipedia, I still believe that those obstacles should not be an excuse to stop the effort. I will continue to edit Wikipedia so that all deserving women scientists have Wikipedia pages. At the same time, I urge everyone on this platform to ponder on how the Wikipedia guidelines could affect this battle against the gender gap going forward, as well as to push the society to better acknowledge women’s accomplishments.


ImageFile:Walking Through Columbia University (5892973734).jpgAlex Proimos, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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