invisible women

Being an old white male myself – and as such by definition an oppressor and exploiter of everyone and everything which is not old and white and male – I try to stay alert (not woke, please, not woke)to the experiences of (some) women by following Caroline Criado Perez’ website and newsletter Invisible Women. I write (some) women, since by far the largest part of the information on her website deals with the stories of well-situated, white or at least western women – while a great many women in this world aren’t even in the material situation to experience the concrete discriminations, contempt and fears she mentions. On the other hand of course, mutatis mutandis, the displays of supposed male superiority may well be universal, ubiquitous and structural.

The contributions are well-documented, humorous/ironic/sarcastic, yet sharp and to the point, and quite often they highlight topics that indeed wouldn’t have come to my old white male mind. An example from the latest newsletter:

The overrepresentation of articles about men on Wikipedia is often put down to the overrepresentation of men in the ranks of Wikipedia editors (men make up an estimated 90% of Wikipedia editors). Women, therefore, are often encouraged to spend time editing Wikipedia to address the imbalance.

As well as being a classic case of an oppressed group being charged with fixing their own oppression, there is also the minor issue of this being a completely unrealistic fix given that women are already ridiculously time-poor what with all the unpaid labour they are already having to fit in around their paid labour. As I noted in Invisible Women, women in the US and the UK have five fewer hours of leisure time per week than men, while an Australian study found that “what little leisure time women do have is ‘more fractured and combined with other tasks’ than men’s”. But sure, load us up with fixing Wikipedia’s problems too, we can take it.

This is of course before we get onto the hostility that women know they will face if they wade into this hornets’ nest:

In order to manage their personal safety, women editors often work in the “quiet corners” of Wikipedia, avoiding topics or areas prone to harassment (Menking et al., 2019; Press and Tripodi, 2021: 140). The need to create safe spaces and tread lightly in discussions are just some of the many reasons Wikipedia participation requires a “taxing level of emotional labor” for women editors (Menking and Erickson, 2015: 209). This hostile environment deters women from continued participation in the community (Bear and Collier, 2016; Eckert and Steiner, 2013; Fister, 2016; Jemielniak, 2014; Peake, 2015)

Nevertheless, as the paper goes on to point out, several activist groups have hosted “edit-a-thons” to increase the visibility of notable women. These strategies have had some success, but, this paper reveals, when it comes to pages about women, creating the page is only the first step in what can be a tedious war of attrition.

Here is one example:

On March 7, 2014, a biography for Donna Strickland, the physicist who invented a technology used by all the high-powered lasers in the world, was created on Wikipedia. In less than six minutes, it was flagged for a “speedy deletion” and shortly thereafter erased from the site. This decision is part of the reason Dr. Strickland did not have an active Wikipedia page when she was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics four years later. Despite clear evidence of Dr. Strickland’s professional endeavors, some did not feel her scholastic contributions were notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia biography.


“My research,” continues the paper’s author, Alexandra Tripodi, “demonstrates that the perceptions of Dr. Strickland’s accomplishments are not an anomaly. What happened to her biography fits a broader pattern regarding how women’s biographies that merit a Wikipedia page are disproportionally perceived as non-notable subjects.”

<women everywhere keel over at this unprecedented finding>

And in a reality exhausted women everywhere will recognise, this means that the activist groups trying to address Wikipedia’s gender data gap can’t spend their time creating more and more pages, but must instead “set alerts on the ones they have already created to ensure they do not get erased.”

AND YOU WONDER WHY WOMEN DON’T BOTHER. God I feel exhausted just thinking about it. But then you get angry because of course THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT. ARGH!

This contribution is based on Francesca Tripodi, ‘Ms. Categorized: Gender, notability, and inequality on Wikipedia’; Tripodi’s article and the newsletter display the links to all other references.

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