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How Wikipedia is fighting the gender gap, one biography at a time

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For the last 1,500 days, Wikipedia volunteer Nitesh Gill has been drafting biographies about notable women from the state of Punjab who have left an indelible mark on India’s history. From late Congress leader Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, the only woman in the country to become an MP six times, to 105-year-old track-and-field athlete and multiple World Masters Games medallist Mann Kaur — Gill has authored over 1,000 such biographies so far,  significantly narrowing the persistent gender gap on Punjabi Wikipedia. 

What Gill has managed to accomplish is no easy feat. Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organisation, has been attempting to address the issue of gender biases on the website for over a decade now. But the website still has a long way to go. Today, only around 18 per cent of the 1.7 billion biographies on the global knowledge sharing website are about women.

In an effort to promote gender equality on the website, Wikimedia Foundation launched ‘Project Rewrite’ to address the absurd lack of recognition women have historically received. “In March we launched Project Rewrite to raise awareness about women’s representation in the information landscape,” Wikimedia Foundation General Counsel Amanda Keton told indianexpress.com. Through the project, re-launched to mark Women’s History Month this year, the foundation seeks to call on journalists, writers, and thought leaders from around the world to tell women’s stories and address the gender gaps that exist in the knowledge ecosystem. 

“We’re working with several organisations to author profile articles about women in various fields, like international development and social innovation, who are deserving of greater recognition,” Keton explained. In India, where the coronavirus pandemic has claimed over one lakh lives, Wikipedia’s team of volunteer editors have tried to ramp up coverage about women in the field of medicine.

“Since 2019, we have been conducting edit-a-thons in different Indian languages,” Dr Manavpreet Kaur, an active contributor and Project Coordinator for Wikipedia, said. Wikipedia’s efforts to address the gender gap have not been limited to Project Rewrite alone, Kaur explained. As part of its WikiGap and Wiki4Women initiatives, around 10 language participants are roped in every year to generate content on women as well as to improve existing content, by adding more images and sources. 

“For instance, we conducted WikiGap Kolkata — which was exclusively in Bengali and English language. Then there was an Art+Feminism edit-a-thon in Punjabi. We have been associating with different language projects across India so that we have a more multi-lingual approach to addressing this issue,” Kaur said.  

The fact that a number of Wikipedia’s projects and campaigns to address gender inequality are focussed on developing countries, such as India, is no coincidence. Wikimedia Foundation’s aim is to reflect the “diversity of the world”, Keton explained. 

“There has been an intentional focus on emerging communities, that is the places where our contributors are poised to grow,” she said. “We want to reflect the diversity of the world, and really, you know, lift up and empower people who have knowledge everywhere, and specifically those places that have been left out of the global conversation on the internet.”

The gender gap Wikipedia faces today is not limited to its content alone. There has also been a gap in participation. Wikipedia uses a network of volunteer contributors, editors and engineers to expand its ever-growing repository of information and to make it available to users across the world for free. “Less than 20 per cent of our contributors across projects have been people who identify as women,” Keton said. According to her, the gender gap on Wikipedia is a mirror of the biases that exist in society.

But since the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world, the website has seen a sudden uptick in the total number of women editors. “We increased our female editors by about 30 per cent. Based on our research we found that the numbers mostly went up among our contributors living in Africa, the Americas — both Latin America as well as North America — and then Oceania,” Keton said. 

Over the last decade, Wikipedia has partnered up with a number of international organisations to increase women’s representation on the website. For instance, in association with Art+Feminism collective in New York, the site launched a campaign in 2014 to improve coverage of cis, and trans women, gender and the arts by organising in-person training and editing events. 

Wikimedia Foundation’s focus has been on “knowledge equity” and breaking down the barriers that have prevented people from participating in free knowledge,” Keton explained. “Knowledge, equity is both about the types of knowledge that we collect and share, but also who the authors of knowledge are. So we have to ask ourselves tough questions like, how do we invite people and communities in? How do we recognise their knowledge, especially types of knowledge that have often been excluded or overshadowed from the historical record?” 

In February this year, Wikimedia Foundation took another significant step towards addressing negative behaviour on the website, when it introduced a first-of-its-kind Universal Code of Conduct. Comparing it to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Keton said, “Before we have the universal code of conduct we had a slew of different policies and standards for each Wikipedia project, there wasn’t really a global standard that governed behaviour on all Wikipedia projects. So it made addressing toxic behaviour much more difficult to enforce consistently, across our projects.”

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