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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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BBC & WikiProject Women in Red team up to tackle online gender bias

BBC & WikiProject Women in Red team up to tackle online gender bias

Screengrab of Lakota activist LaDonna Brave Bull Allard‘s Wikipedia page. 


By Kara Newhouse

Kara Newhouse is the creator and host of the Women in STEM podcast and a 2015 ivoh summit attendee. You can follow her on Twitter at @KaraNewhouse.



With more than a million biographies among its pages, it may seem that anyone worth knowing about is featured on Wikipedia.

Yet, if that notable figure is a woman, she could be harder to find.

Only about 17 percent of English-language biographies on the crowd-sourced site are about women, according to WikiProject Women in Red, an initiative to change that ratio.

Women in Red began two years ago and recently got a boost from from one of the world’s largest news organizations. On Dec. 8, the BBC mobilized its staff and audience around the globe for a day-long Wikipedia edit-a-thon focused on pages about women.

“This is an ambitious project, but enlisting women to contribute is a great way to help make the internet less gender-biased,” wrote the BBC’s Fiona Crack the day before the event.

More than 400 profiles were created or updated during the edit-a-thon, resulting in the highest number of women added to Wikipedia in a single event.

At the start of the day, participants in BBC offices from London to Kathmandu to São Paulo received short tutorials on editing Wikipedia. Then they dove in.

“There was an atmosphere of fairly intense concentration but in a real collegial way,” said Taylor Brown, a BBC features producer who organized the Washington, DC bureau’s event.

In an email interview with ivoh, Brown said the expectation was not to include every detail of a woman’s life. “Getting started and getting these women into Wikipedia, where other people could pick up the baton, was the most important,” she said.

Biographies added during the edit-a-thon featured women such as Lakota activist LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Ugandan rebel queen Muhumusa, and volcanologist Dr. Kayla Iacovino. Many of the women were selected from the BBC’s “100 Women” series, an annual three-week season of documentaries and stories about remarkable women. According to Crack, who founded “100 Women,” half of the women the BBC profiled in the last four years did not have Wikipedia pages before December.


On the day of the edit-a-thon, the BBC maintained a live blog with triumphant updates from participants around the world. In some places, though, the effort met resistance that illustrated other issues commonly faced by women online. For instance, a woman at BBC Turkey received an offensive image in her Wikipedia message box after adding entries. The woman said that it wasn’t her first time experiencing such abuse as a female journalist.

In a context of widespread trolling and under-representation of women’s stories, editing Wikipedia pages provides a measurable way to tackle one facet of online gender bias.

“Changing something like the percentage of women in Wikipedia articles is a cumulative effort, and a hard grind,” said Brown. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and it can be exhausting to think about it in a grand scale, but seeing how much a fairly small number of people got done in a short period of time was inspiring.”

Brown said seeing the excitement among those who joined the edit-a-thon was her favorite part.

“I wrongly assumed it would be a big ask to get my colleagues interested in editing Wikipedia, but I got a very strong response and a lot of people who expressed interest in the project who couldn’t be there because of prior commitments or the news cycle.”

For those who want to create or edit a page on their own, she gave the following advice: “Just get started. It’s pretty hard to break Wikipedia in a way that very dedicated volunteers can’t help you improve or fix.”

Women in Red encourages Wikipedia editors to participate in monthly themes and compiles related lists of missing pages. Upcoming themes are black women and women anthropologists.

“Understanding that every one of us can contribute to the sum of all human knowledge is incredible,” wrote Women in Red co-founder Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight in a BBC column last month. “Never before in history has there been an opportunity for anyone to contribute to an encyclopedia.”

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