March 10, 2016

Wikipedia event advocates for female perspectives

It started with an attempt to shake things up in the classroom, and has generated an event that aims to attract more than 100 students to make a palpable change on Wikipedia.

Several University of Nebraska-Lincoln groups will host the WikiWarriors Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon next week in hopes of increasing female presence on one of the globe’s most pervasive online information sources.

The idea for the edit-a-thon, which will be 9 p.m. March 15 to 1 a.m. March 16 in the Adele Coryell Hall Learning Commons in Love Library North, started last year. That’s when University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student Daniel Clausen wanted to demonstrate to his students that their classwork had real-world value. He began including assignments in his English 151 section for students to create and edit Wikipedia pages.

The assignments worked.

“Instead of churning out a 15-page paper that just I would read, they wrote three or four paragraphs and sweated over every word,” Clausen said.

But preparing the assignment for the syllabus called his attention to the gender gap on Wikipedia, where roughly just 13 percent of its contributors are women. That statistic, found in a study by the Wikimedia Foundation and the United Nations University’s MERIT program and highlighted in The New York Times in 2011, surprised Clausen, a doctoral candidate in English.

“But once I started looking, it became obvious that the topics that are covered skew very traditionally male,” he said. “You have lots and lots of military history and not much on women’s history.”

There is no simple reason why this gender gap exists, he said but some – including Wikipedia’s own directors – have theorized that a hacker culture has overtaken the site and that the discussion boards in which editors lay out their cases for various articles and changes can be unwelcoming to women.

Clausen mentioned the edit-a-thon idea to students, and found a high level of interest from several groups on campus, including the Women’s Center, which was looking for new events for Women’s Week at UNL. Other sponsors include UNL Libraries, the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management, Aspen Lincoln, Hudl, Computing for All: ACM-W Chapter, Bulu Box, the departments of history and English, the graduate certificate program in digital humanities, the Digital Humanities Student Association, Information Technology Services, and the division of student affairs.

Anyone can participate, co-organizer and undergraduate student Sydney Goldberg said.

“The thing that they need to know is that they don’t need to know anything,” Goldberg said. “We have set up the event so that people can show up and we will take them through the entire process.”

Organizers have planned topics to cover that are curated from UNL history and local women’s history, such as famous alumni Louise Pound, Mari Sandoz and Prairie Schooner, UNL’s literary journal.

By teaching participants about Wikipedia editing, Clausen hopes participants will see that the process isn’t difficult, resulting in more people, especially women, becoming regular contributors.

“We’re also hoping to show that once you get over this threshold of, ‘I am a Wikipedia editor,’ there’s really a lot you can do. The learning curve isn’t so steep that it should keep you out,” he said.

As a computer science minor, Goldberg said she now recognizes the gender gap in Wikipedia.

“Even if I had been aware (earlier), I wouldn’t have understood the implications,” she said. “In a developed country like ours, it’s easy to take Wikipedia for granted because we have access to so many resources that are free and open, but in less-developed countries, this is sometimes one of the only information sources. We need everyone’s perspectives in it, on all topics.”

Participants do not need to pre-register, but can visit these pages for more information.

Daniel Clausen
Sydney Goldberg