Women and Wikipedia: science and engineering’s forgotten labour

A Wikipedia Edit-a-thon for National Women in Engineering Day addresses both the underrepresentation of female editors of Wikipedia and the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering.  

Alice Bell
23 June 2014

A Wikipedia Edit-a-thon for National Women in Engineering Day addresses both the underrepresentation of female editors of Wikipedia and the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. 

Today, to celebrate National Women in Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering are running a women in engineering Wikipedia Edit-a-thon.

It follows a series of similar events held at the Royal Society (who have their own Wikimedian in Residence). Anyone can turn up - men are allowed in too - they are given an introduction to editing Wikipedia and encouraged to help build and improve entries on female scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

The aim is partly to get more women acting as editors for Wikipedia. Only one in ten of Wikipedia editors are female, and it seems to bias their content. You don’t need to go to a workshop to edit the site (if you never have, go on, have a go, it’s fun and really easy) but the sort of support offered can help make it feel less daunting, and add some fun of social interaction around it rather than simply sitting typing alone in your room. The project also aims to build better coverage women scientists and engineers too.

It’s quite striking how weak the coverage of female scientists and engineers on Wikipedia is. If a pages does exist, it's often a stub, or at least quite short compared to equivalent men in the field. For all that women's participation in science continues to be a struggle, it's not as if we suffer from a complete lack of brilliant female scientists, engineers and mathematicians. There are loads; today and in the past. It’s just that we don't talk about them much. The edit-a-thons are helping address this problem.

Another good example is the continually inspiring Trowel Blazers, a site that regularly posts profiles of women in archaeology, palaeontology & geology (those who carry trowels) past and present; often more interesting than equivalent men because of the struggles they faced in their careers, or simply that their stories have been previously hidden. Move over Indiana Jones, try reading up on Dorothy Garrod, Dorothea Bate, Jane Dieulafoy or Victoria Herridge instead.

As a result of the Royal Society Wikipedia edit-a-thons, we now have new or improved entries on Barbara Farnsworth Heslop, Molly Stephens, Marie Meurdrac, Letitia Fairfield and Baroness Platt (Never heard of them before? Treat yourself and read the entries). But there’s still many more that could do with improving. Joanna Haigh, Sophie Scott, Sandy Knapp or Corinne Le Quéré for example, if you have some spare time this week.

It’s not just Wikipedia. If you do take it upon yourself to build or edit an entry about a woman in science or engineering, it can be hard graft, simply because there is a dearth of other coverage of them. Google a senior male scientist and you’ll probably find some coverage of their research, possibly interviews with them, maybe a video of a lecture or three; content easy to add to a Wikipedia entry. For their equivalent women, however, that sort of coverage is a lot harder to find, reflecting the ways women can remain invisible in science and engineering, even when they manage to hold senior positions. Radio Four’s The Life Scientific is a notable exception, so much so that it really sticks out.

As Imperial College’s Felicity Mellor wrote for Open Democracy’s Our Beeb in 2012, her analysis of BBC science coverage found that only about a quarter of the people interviewed in BBC news reports about science are women, and when women are included, they are less likely to appear first in the item than the male interviewees. This is largely true for non-news science programming too, although interestingly not in children’s programmes. This reflects work by Jenny Kitzinger and others at the University of Cardiff. A publicity officer for a major science origination told these researchers that for a ‘real heavy-weight current affairs programme’ they’d go with a white middle-class male, whereas BBC breakfast shows would ask specifically for a young, attractive woman. A scientist reported she’d had trouble moving from children’s television, where her tomboy image fitted fine, to adult programming, because she couldn’t suit an image of ‘thinking man’s crumpet.’ Mellor concludes that the more serious, grown up, authoritative or science-focused the programme, the less likely it is to include many women. The Cardiff research suggests that whereas male scientists may signal an aura of gravitas, women are used when the science is being made accessible or sexy.

Still, campaigners taking to Wikipedia to improve public awareness of women in science should be careful that a focus on profiles of the great and good women of science doesn't distract from a larger awareness of the diversity of work which goes into science. One of the lessons we can take from a feminist history of science is that we routinely forget all sorts of labour involved in science in no small part because of the way gender intersects with the very ridged and strongly applied hierarchies of the business. Look beyond Professorial level, and there are plenty of interesting, knowledgeable women to talk to. It varies from field to field, but women are not underrepresented in the overall scientific workforce, it’s progressing to more senior roles that is the problem. And it’s not just about academics either. As generations of feminist scholars of science in society have stressed, what about the technicians, the cleaners, the administrators, the caterers, the teachers, the lensmakers, the typists, the calculators, the writers and all the other workers which are equally a key part of science? Looking for women can open our eyes to many of these roles, but they include many undervalued men in their ranks too.

There are an increasing number of successful women in science, engineering, maths and medicine, and they should be talked about in public as much as their male colleagues, if only because we need to be able to read up to ask questions about them. It’s maybe a blessing that female climate scientists seen to have a relatively low profile on Wikipedia, where global warming can be a contentious topic, but it doesn’t say much for the robustness of our public debate. The chief scientific advisor for the European Commission is a woman, for example, as is the in-coming President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. These, along with many other women in science, are people who hold power, and as such should be scrutinised (and scrutinised for their work, not their clothes). But we shouldn't forget that science is really a team sport. Until we stop revering only those at the top of hierarchies, we'll continue to have a blinkered view of scientific work.

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