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What’s missing from the media discussions of Wikipedia categories and sexism

Last week the New York Times published an Op-Ed from author Amanda Filipacchi headlined Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists, in which she criticized Wikipedia for moving some authors from the “American novelists” category into a sub-category called “American women novelists.” Because there is no subcategory for “American male novelists,” Filipacchi saw the change as reflecting a sexist double standard, in which ‘male’ is positioned as the ungendered norm, with ‘female’ as a variant.

I completely understand why Filipacchi was outraged. She saw herself, and Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Judy Blume, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Higgins Clark, and many others, seemingly downgraded in the public record and relegated to a subcategory that she assumed would get less readership than the main one. She saw this as a loss for American women novelists who might otherwise be visible when people went to Wikipedia looking for ideas about who to hire, to honor, or to read.

In the days following, other publications picked up the story, and Filipacchi wrote two followup pieces — one describing edits made to her own biography on Wikipedia following her first op-ed, and another rebutting media stories that had positioned the original categorization changes as the work of a lone editor.

For me–as a feminist Wikipedian–reading the coverage has been extremely interesting. I agree with many of the criticisms that have been raised (as I think many Wikipedians do), and yet there are important points that I think have been missing from the media discussions so far.

In Wikipedia, like any large-scale human endeavor, practice often falls short of intent.

Individuals make mistakes, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t call into question the usefulness or motivations of the endeavor as a whole. Since 2011, Wikipedia has officially discouraged the creation of gender-specific subcategories, except when gender is relevant to the category topic. (One of the authors of the guideline specifically noted that it is clear that any situation in which women get a gendered subcategory while men are left in the ungendered parent category is unacceptable.) In other words, the very situation Filipacchi decries in her op-ed has been extensively discussed and explicitly discouraged on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a continual work-in-progress. It’s never done.

In her original op-ed, Filipacchi seems to assume that Wikipedians are planning to move all the women out of the American Novelists category, leaving all the men. But that’s not the case. There’s a continuous effort on Wikipedia to refine and revise categories with large populations, and moving out the women from American Novelists would surely have been followed by moving out the satirical novelists, or the New York novelists, or the Young Adult novelists. I’d argue it’s still an inappropriate thing to do, because women are 50 percent of the population, not a variant to the male norm. Nevertheless the move needs to be understood not as an attack on women, but rather, in the context of continuous efforts to refine and revise all categories.

Wikipedia is a reflection of the society that produces it.

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, and as such it reflects the cultural biases and attitudes of the general society. It’s important to say that the people who write Wikipedia are a far larger and vastly more diverse group than the staff of any newsroom or library or archive, past or present. That’s why Wikipedia is bigger, more comprehensive, up-to-date and nuanced, compared with any other reference work. But with fewer than one in five contributors being female, gender is definitely Wikipedia’s weak spot, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it would fall victim to the same gender-related errors and biases as the society that produces it.

Are there misogynists on Wikipedia? Given that anyone with internet access can edit it, and that there are roughly 80,000 active editors (those who make at least 5 edits per month on Wikimedia projects), it would be absurd to claim that Wikipedia is free of misogyny. Are there well-intentioned people on Wikipedia accidentally behaving in ways that perpetuate sexism? Of course. It would be far more surprising if Wikipedia were somehow free of sexism, rather than the reverse.

Which brings me to my final point.

It’s not always the case, but in this instance the system worked. Filipacchi saw something on Wikipedia that she thought was wrong. She drew attention to it. Now it’s being discussed and fixed. That’s how Wikipedia works.

The answer to bad speech is more speech. Many eyes make all bugs shallow. If you see something on Wikipedia that irks you, fix it. If you can’t do it yourself, the next best thing is to do what Filipacchi did — talk about it, and try to persuade other people there’s a problem. Wikipedia belongs to its readers, and it’s up to all of us to make it as good as it possibly can be.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

21 Responses to “What’s missing from the media discussions of Wikipedia categories and sexism”

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  1. The only thing that needs emphasising here is what Obi-Wan said last: subcategories based on gender, ethnicity, religion and sexuality (GERS) should never be diffusing. In other words, anyone put into such a category should also be in the non-GERS-specific parent category – whether it is a male feminist, a woman novelist, or an African-American poet.

    Note that current Wikipedia practice with respect to the issue of race/ethnicity is just as problematic as the women’s categorisation issue. Many African-Americans and members of other ethnic minorities are currently excluded from neutral categories predominantly populated by whites – just because of the colour of their skin.

  2. Some worthwhile comments on this statement in The Daily Dot:

    http://www.dailydot.com/society/wikipedia-sexism-problem-sue-gardner/

    The Daily Dot writer takes particular issue with the claim that Wikipedians are “a vastly more diverse group than the staff of any newsroom or library or archive, past or present”. He says, citing a Wikipedia Survey, “That statement is demonstrably false: Wikipedia is overwhelmingly young, white, and male. Its users are as diverse as the readership of Maxim.”

    He also challenges the somewhat odd assertion that Filipacchi’s going to the press, and Wikipedians then responding to the public controversy, prove that the system works.

    “If that’s the system, then it’s broken. Women should have never been cut from that list. And they probably wouldn’t have, if only more than 10 percent of editors on the biggest encyclopedia in history were women in the first place.”

    Those are fair points.

  3. Vigilant says:

    Sue.
    Since you penned this blog post, would you please answer some of the comments?

  4. obiwan says:

    Hi Corinne. Thanks for your response. My first !vote in the CFD was to propose exactly that – if we ever create a ‘women’ category, create one for men too, and diffuse everyone into either one (we’d also have to create one – or more – 3rd gender cats for intersex/transgender/genderqueer/etc). However, I gave up that fight, as I don’t think I could ever get consensus around it as a general approach. To date we’ve been able to maintain men/women cats for actors, models, and some sports, since gender is clearly defining in either direction for these roles.

    However, if I tried to create a Male poets category, I would be laughed out of dodge. They would say “That is not defining – there is no such thing as a study of poetry written by males” – and even feminists and other women would make that same argument (for example, LQuilter- very sharp, but she’s said basically that).- and they would do so in spite of the evidence, like books being written on the subject. (http://www.google.com/search?q=male+poetry&btnG=Search+Books&tbm=bks&tbo=1).

    Isn’t womyns studies in some sense, “the practice of placing women apart”?

    Also, note that the notion of “other” plays itself out in many ways – for example, today, we distinguish Male prostitutes from Prostitutes, and Male feminists from Feminists. The role of “norm” is also tricky w.r.t. LGBT. How do you capture LGBT (which is itself a crazy amalgalm), while still not reinforming hetero-norms? Create a hetero or “straight” category? The same goes for an ethnicity like African-American – the only way to avoid “norming” there is to equal it with a European American cat somehow. But it will never happen to have a White poets category – again the argument will be – no books written, no college courses, no journals devoted to. So wikipedia is also a reflection of the broader scope of society, and cannot be much more idealistic or utopic than that society.

    This: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Feminist_writers already exists (not sure if it’s worth further splitting that into novelists).

    But to your broader question as to how we categorize writers, take a look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Writers. We categorize by genre, by century, by nationality, by format, language, period, religion, subject area, etc – that’s why it’s so bloody difficult to actually fully categorize a single writer, because we have literally 18 different ways to slice and dice them. The vast majority of those ways of slicing are diffusing – but a select few (G/E/R/S), are not, and when people forget this, NY times articles get written.

    anyway, nice to chat with you, if you want a deep dive on the challenges of non-diffusing categories and structural sexism, check out this post:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Jimbo_Wales#On_structural_and_categorical_sexism

  5. Tilman Bayer says:

    I believe Obiwan means this quiz. Interesting.

  6. Corinne says:

    The category of American Women Novelists is itself a discriminatory one, so long as there is no corresponding American Men Novelists. And to be honest, having both categories is somewhat ridiculous. They’ll still both be huge, and do nothing to diffuse the parent category. In your scenario, if we categorize novelists according to time frame, I assume that it is done irrespective of gender. If so, then there is no gender discrimination or creation of a sense of “other.”

    To me it could not be more obvious that the practice of placing women apart as an “other” is also discriminatory. It is not more or less so because someone recently decided to move all women novelists from the broader category (resulting in a category listing mainly men) into the sub-category. That particular editor’s zealousness has no bearing on the question, although fortuitously his efforts brought the shame to light.

    And none of the page after page after page after page of discussion on the topic convinced me that the category was anything other than discriminatory in creation or practice.

    It may be that diffusing novelists by time period is really the only “equitable” way to do so. This is how I studied literature in college; it bears consideration as a method of categorizing a large number of entries. But I am not terribly concerned with finding a solution. My main issue was with the implication that novelists are, by default, men and women are somehow a distinct different animal (with the further implication that they are less-than).

    As an aside – I would not fundamentally oppose a category of “Feminist Novelists”, if there is a recognition in academia that an author has placed him or herself in that genre. This category would also be populated irrespective of gender, although care would need to be taken to ensure it doesn’t become an outer ring for women authors as a result of lazy editing.

  7. obiwan says:

    Ok, suppose American novelists had been fully diffused to by-century cats (e.g. 20th century novelists, 19th century novelists, etc), and all authors were placed in one of those cats – so there were no articles in the parent. Does American women novelists suddenly become non-discriminatory?

    That’s again a form of reverse-retroactive-sexism – a category can become less discriminatory not based on the nature of the cat (e.g. its name, its target contents) or where it’s placed in the tree (parent/child relationships), but instead can be based on the behavior of editors around that category. Which is why I think the terms discriminatory and sexist are misapplied here – how can something I created a month ago suddenly become _more_ or _less_ sexist based on the actions of someone else?

    In your view, is “American women novelists” “essentially” discriminatory, or only in practice, and if that practice changes, then it becomes a good category again? I feel like you’re saying the latter in your second comment, but in your first were calling for the category to be deleted, which means, it doesn’t matter how you use it, it is at its root a bad/sexist cat.

    We still need to diffuse American novelists, so not all women (and men!) will remain in that cat :(

    If you’re already on the wiki, please come take the quiz! It is a great learning experience.

  8. Corinne says:

    @Obiwan:

    I’ve seen plenty of your comments in the talk discussions (which I’ve been closely following for the last few days). I see that a consensus has been reached at this point. I won’t respond to your wall of text, save for this:

    > What is it, exactly, that makes a category “discriminatory”?

    Many factors can determine whether a category is discriminatory, but in this particular case, discriminatory effect can be easily seen when a categorization leaves a non-gender specific category (such as “American novelists”) populated primarily by men, implying that male writers are the default and likewise implying that female writers are somehow “other.” And apparently this categorization runs counter to Wikipeda’s category standards.

  9. obiwan says:

    Hi Corinne,

    There are currently around 397 categories under the Women writers tree (click here for a full list: http://toolserver.org/~magnus/catscan_rewrite.php?depth=20&categories=Women+writers&ns%5B14%5D=1&sortby=title&doit=1.) Are you suggesting we get rid of *all* of those “discriminatory categories”, or just the American women novelists, since it’s been in the press?

    Or we could go broader, and delete all of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Women_by_occupation, which has almost 5000 categories, from Yemeni female singers to Women state legislators from Alabama to Egyptian queens regnant. (Men by occupation has around 6000). Do you really think that would be in the best interests of the wiki to delete these?

    What is it, exactly, that makes a category “discriminatory”?

    I also encourage you to look at the discussions here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category_talk:Women_writers), dating back to 2006, around the formation and disputes about this top-level category, which was nominated for deletion several times but finally survived. There were many female editors involved in those discussions, and defending the existence of this category *based* on things like Women’s studies, and the fact that the Library of Congress itself has a sub-category for women writers. Are they also sexist for having such a category?

    Many many many commenters (both male and female) have noted the utility of such gendered categories, so I feel your proposal of deletion, especially of just the American women novelists category, is not workable – if we don’t want to categorize writer-job + women, then we should logically delete the whole tree, but I bet the community – backed up by many scholars and feminists and everything else – will probably not support that.

    On the other hand, making the category non-diffusing so women are not ghettoized, as per the guidelines we already have in place, is obvious, and is currently being done. This whole blow up was just because some editors were not following the guidelines in place about not ghettoizing people based on gender – but there was no conspiracy, and no sexist intent.

    I’ve expounded at length on Jimbo’s talk page on the challenges inherent in doing non-diffusing gendered categories correctly – it is actually quite complex to do so in a way that doesn’t ghettoize, because people are not just novelists, they are often many other things besides, and you have to be quite careful to choose categories in each of their trees that don’t end up leaving them ghettoized. I even created a quiz to try to categorize a single bio – four experienced editors have taken it, and all have failed (e.g. they all left her ghettoized). It’s not easy!

    This becomes even more complex when you add ethnicity into the mix, and the categorization challenges become even more acute. The approach of “non-diffusion” of certain categories (e.g. ethnicity, sexuality, religion, gender) means that each article has to embed within it an intelligence and understanding of the whole category tree – but that tree is constantly evolving, independently of the articles within it. Thus, you could categorize someone one day, without ghettoizing, and the next due to an edit unrelated to you, in a category you’ve never heard of, they could end up ghettozied. I’ve called this retroactive sexism.

    It’s unfortunate that much of the subtlety of categorization in a hierarchical system has been glossed over, and the fact that community consensus is wildly divergent within the wiki about the existence of these categories in the first place and when and how they should be used. The “male sexism” story frankly doesn’t hold much water in this case – there is certainly sexism in wikipedia, but this is not where you’ll find it.

    As to showing all sub-cats, take a look at the American novelists category right now – you will see a link which will pull up a list of …drumroll…. all novelists, including those in sub categories. So we can already do this, today.

    Finally, much was made of the fact that every male author, no matter how minor, was in American novelists while women were pulled out, but unfortunately the media got this dead wrong too. At the time of the story, there were 3700 bios in American novelists, and another 3000 – men and women – in sub-categories. 3000 bios that had never basked in the glory of the “American novelists” category.

    The American novelists category was never intended as a hall-of-fame – it was more a holding area for those awaiting sub-categorization – laziness crept in and it wasn’t diffused properly, and you can see the tragic result. Even today however, there are no women in the American politicians category, but nobody complains – because that one *has* been fully diffused.

    In any case, I hope you’ll come join the discussions on-wiki.

  10. Marcus Cyron says:

    Funny: I remember a debate in the german language Wikipedia depending this theme – but in an other direction. There die female/feminist authors had critizised, that all the female authors are together with the male and the Category is named with the “generic masculinum”.

    What ever we do, somone will be there to dislike it. Wikipedia isn’t (sorry, I don’t know an english word for ist) “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eierlegende_Wollmilchsau)

  11. Corinne says:

    The system hasn’t worked, as evidenced by the Talk pages on the subject and the fact that the prime offender in this particular case continues to recategorize women novelists. He has stridently defended his position, and has several vocal backers. The system cannot be claimed to have worked until the discriminatory category is eliminated. The problem is not “fixed”. It is simply well-known.

  12. Kevin says:

    You’re kidding right? The most likely search is for ‘American novelists’, which would leave the reader thinking that women didn’t write novels.

  13. Vigilant says:

    I was talking about you and the rest of the WMF, Sue.

  14. Vicky says:

    Yes, I agreed with this. And I feel that it’s actually a larger falling of the Mediawiki categorisation system: really top level categories need to show all articles *and* the sub categories. You get similarly weird situations with musicians where really important people are hidden three subcategories in.

  15. Oop says:

    Well, one can always create lists of fe/male novelists, butlers, dentists or whoever. It still makes much more sense to stick to subcategories that are relevant for the category. [[Category:Crime novelists]] is better than [[Category:Blue-eyed novelists]].

  16. Wikipedia also tries to make available the information that people want. There are large numbers of feminists, any one of whom may want to quickly look up “American female novelists”. Whereas a search for “American male novelists” is much less likely.

    So, ironically, while it might not have been the best choice, the purpose may have been to facilitate feminism.

  17. Vigilant says:

    What’s missing?

    Leadership.

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