Blog post

Why Wikipedia needs shaking up for women

To mark International Women’s Day 2018 (March 8), Caroline Ball, Librarian at the University of Derby, discusses why Wikipedia needs shaking up to address the lack of representation of women in the world’s largest information resource.

By Caroline Ball - 5 March 2018

Famous women you may not know about

Actress Hedy Lamarr is best known as a Hollywood starlet of the 1930-50s – but did you also know that during WW2 she laid the technological foundations for GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, by developing and patenting a frequency-hopping radio signal for radio-controlled torpedoes?

Or did you know that a woman invented Kevlar? Or the board game Monopoly? How about windscreen wipers? Or the circular saw? Or, and this one’s important, chocolate chip cookies?

What’s Wikipedia’s role in promoting gender equality?

Wikipedia is the world’s largest and most popular general reference site on the internet. It contains more than 40 million articles in 299 languages, with the English language site containing more than 5.5 million articles. It receives nearly 500 million unique visitors each month.

However, it has been criticised for exhibiting systemic bias, with articles subject to manipulation, spin or political slant. It has also been condemned for representing a mainstream Western-centric view of the world – namely, 90% of its editors/ contributors are male, predominantly young, English-speaking, educated, technology savvy and wealthy enough to have a computer, an internet connection and enough time to devote to editing Wikipedia.

This has meant that Wikipedia is over-represented in the more mainstream fields of pop culture, technology and US and Eurocentric current events, and lacks content relating to certain nationalities, ethnicities, cultures or religions, and, our topic of interest, gender.

What’s the Women in Red campaign and why does it matter?

The WikiProject Women in Red project was founded in July 2015, in an effort to improve the percentage of Wikipedia biographies devoted to women. At the time of the project’s founding, only about 15% of the English Wikipedia’s biographies were about women. As of 12 February 2018, that figure is now 17.48%. It sounds like a small increase, and it is – it means that of Wikipedia’s 1.52 million biographies, fewer than 270,000 are about women. The Women in Red project continually aims to do better, to turn red (i.e. non-existent) links to blue by creating pages and articles about women.

It could be argued that, until relatively recent times, the majority of historical, political, literary, medical, economic, scientific, and technical achievements and advances have been by men. And for the most part, that is true – for much of human history (and still today in many parts of the world) women were not given the education, means, freedom and opportunity to make significant headway in the world of men. But that is not the whole story.

Watson and Crick were awarded the Noble Prize for their work in discovering the DNA double helix, but have you heard of Rosalind Franklin, whose work laid the foundations for that discovery? Or Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist, who initiated and led the first research in nuclear fission with her collaborator Otto Hahn. Hahn was subsequently exclusively awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry, but neither the Nobel committee nor her one-time partner even mentioned Meitner’s name.

After all, who determines what we deem to be ‘important’? Generally for much of history the individuals writing those historical papers, those history books, the political monographs and newspaper articles that have shaped our knowledge and our culture, have been men. Ignoring, whether deliberately or simply through lack of awareness, the very real and very meaningful achievements of women is another form of gender discrimination, a form of systemic bias.

Why representation matters

In the United Kingdom, women are in the majority. Just. The most recent demographics show a 49.3% to 50.7% percent split. And yet women make up nowhere near 50% of the most visible, high-profile, influential or profitable industries.

Among Fortune 500 companies, women make up only 6.4% of CEOs. In film, women constitute only 18% of all behind the scenes roles, and only 30% of acting roles. In the tech sector, women make up only 17% of the workforce. In Parliament only 30% of MPs are female.

To quote American activist Marian Wright Edelmen, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Representation matters. How can we encourage young girls and women to excel and exceed their potential, to reach for the stars, to become anything they want to be, if they do not have access to evidence and examples of female excellence and achievement?

So, what does this mean for you?

It means there is work to do. The University of Derby is hosting an International Women’s Day Editathon on March 8, 2018 to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of women. Roger Bamkin, Co-Founder of the Women in Red project, as well as Library and Study Skills staff and volunteer Wikipedians, will be available to help staff and students learn the basics of editing and contributing to Wikipedia – whether that be adding missing citations, copyediting and improving language or grammar, translating articles into or from English, or creating brand new articles from scratch.

We will be working on the Women in Red project’s list of missing articles and encouraging participants to select one of the many women who are not yet represented on Wikipedia to focus on.

Every link created, every reference added, every line of text, goes towards addressing the lack of representation of women in the world’s largest information resource.

For further information contact the Corporate Communications team at or call 01332 593953.

About the author

Caroline Ball
Subject Librarian for Law and Social Sciences

Caroline Ball is a subject librarian at the University of Derby, supporting the Law, Criminology, Policing, International Relations and Sociology programmes. She is also the University's Copyright and Licensing Advisor.