Gender bias and Eurocentrism - the blind spots of Wikipedia

Through edit-a-thons and collaborative efforts, activists are addressing the imperfections of the online encyclopedia  

Wikipedia Monument by Mihran Hakobyan in Slubice, Poland
Wikipedia Monument by Mihran Hakobyan in Slubice, Poland / Lea Beliaeva Bander

Lea Beliaeva Bander | @leabander | Barcelona

February 18, 2024 11:35 AM

When searching for information on any given topic, chances are you've consulted Wikipedia, the world's largest and most popular free encyclopedia and one that needs no introduction to most people. In fact, Wikipedia.org had more than 9 billion page views in 2023, making it the sixth most visited site on the internet last year, according to Semrush. 

But the popular site has a bias problem due to the homogeneity of its editors, something they are all painfully aware of and are trying to change. 

Typical profile of Wikipedia editor  

"Sadly, I'm the typical profile," shrugs Àlex Hinojo, a longtime Catalan Wikipedia editor and board member of the Catalan association, Amical Wikimedia, which promotes editing Wikipedia in Catalan. "A white male with high studies, some free time, and looking to help with their language or to contribute to free knowledge." 

On the Catalan Wikipedia, Viquipèdia, nearly 85% of contributors are male. While this percentage is high, the general Wikipedia average is even higher. According to a survey conducted in 2018 by the American NGO, Wikimedia Foundation, 90% of respondents identified their gender as male, while 8.8% identified as female and only 1% as non-binary. 

Two out of ten biographies about women 

One of the direct consequences of gender bias on Wikipedia is the lack of biographies written about women. In fact, only two out of ten biographies on the Catalan Wikipedia are written about women. 

"You mainly edit what concerns you, and what attracts your attention," explains Núria Ribas, the president of Amical Wikimedia and a Viquipèdia editor, or Wikipedian. 

Although the number has improved over the last decade, Ribas stresses that there is still plenty of room for improvement, since most of the biographies are about "actresses, saints or princesses." There is also a lack of non-binary editors and content, she adds. 

On the Catalan Wikipedia, "there are only 406 biographies about non-binary people," Ribas says, adding "this is not a representation of real life," as it represents 0.2% of all biographies. 

Sexism keeps away female and non-binary editors 

According to Sue Gardner, former executive director of Wikimedia Foundation, there are various reasons why women don't edit Wikipedia, and many are related to sexism. Gardner cites "an aversion to conflict and an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars" as well as a "belief that their contributions are too likely to be reverted or deleted." 

Núria Ribas has been a Wikipedia editor for more than 10 years and recognizes some of the problems Gardner identifies when it comes to editing biographies about women. She says that a biography can be stalled or removed if other editors feel that the person's accomplishments do not meet the bare minimum to be on Wikipedia.   

"When it comes to women and non-binary biographies, you have to show two or three times more accomplishments in order to let them remain as a Wikipedia page," she says, offering an example: 

"Pamela Jones is not on Wikipedia, she's an astrophysicist and one of the arguments was that she only has one asteroid with her name. She worked in NASA, she's quite an accomplished woman, but" - imitates Ribas sarcastically - "it's just a woman with an asteroid."  

However, the editor insists that although it's a problem, she’s glad that the Catalan Wikipedia is not "at the top of that dark ranking of tough Wikipedia editors." 

She also believes that raising awareness of the shortcomings is the first step in creating change, and while there is still a long way to go, she insists that the current conversation "would have been completely different 10 years ago." 

Consequences of bias 

The lack of female and non-binary editors on Wikipedia is not only a problem when it comes to representation and visibility, argued American sociologist Francesca Tripodi in an interview with American media outlet Marketplace in 2021.  

"The data on Wikipedia also teaches AI systems used by Google, Alexa, and Siri. So, when women go missing from Wikipedia, that absence reverberates, but also, it's extremely discouraging and frustrating," she said at the time. 

In addition, Tripodi called the work of keeping pages about women up an "additional emotional labor toll" for female editors. 

Núria Ribas, says it was "tough" being one of the few female editors in her field. "I started editing content linked to Asia because that's my field of expertise, and I would rarely edit on gender, but you end up doing it, because otherwise, there's no one else to do it." 

Eurocentrism and racial bias 

Wikipedia also has another problem, which is racial bias, and Eurocentrism, the latter referring to a worldview or mindset that centers European or white ways of knowing as central or superior to all others.  

In fact, according to a 2018 study, about 80% of all editors are based in the Global North, and because most editors write about their own local culture, there is a significant lack of coverage of the Global South. 

Consequently, "as of 2021 there are more articles on the English Wikipedia about Paris than Africa," according to WikiAfrica Education Initiative, a platform that aims to empower and amplify voices from Africa on Wikipedia. 

Blackening Wikipedia 

To combat Eurocentrism and racial bias, lawyer and Wiki activist Ivonne González founded the project Blackening Wikipedia (Ennegrint Viquipèdia, in Catalan) in 2020, which is available in Spanish, French and Catalan

Specifically, the project intends to add more articles and references on African culture and personalities, including pre-colonial history. 

Since its inception, the project has hosted a number of events and edit-a-thons, which are in-person or online events where Wikipedians edit and improve specific topics and create new biographies. In February, the project of photographing "racist and colonial monuments and heritage in Geneva" will take place. 


Catalan Wikiprojects to combat bias 

In Catalonia, the Amical Wikimedia has been trying to close – or diminish – the gender gap for years through edit-a-thons. One such events is the ongoing Viquidones (Wikiwomen, in English), a project that began ten years ago. 

"With a lot of effort, we've reached 20% and some changes in women's biographies in the last six years," explains Ribas. In numbers, this means an increase from 15,000 biographies to almost 40,000. 

One project completed in January, thanks to an edit-a-thon, was to create biographies on the Catalan Wikipedia for the 100 women listed in the BBC feature of the same name.  

"Pioneering" collaboration with 200 libraries 

Another idea aimed at improving the Catalan Wikipedia was born in 2012, when Amical Wikimedia reached out to the Catalan libraries to launch the BiblioWikis project. The aspiration was a collaboration that would "bring Wikipedia and its sister projects closer to the general public and library professionals," explains Carme Fenoll, who was a Catalan librarian at the time and was approached by Àlex Hinojo.  

Although skeptical at first, she decided it was worth a try, and now calls the project "pioneering" in that Catalonia "was the first country to promote this link between libraries and Wikipedia."  

The object was that each library could collaborate in different ways, from editing and running editing workshops for users to photographing and documenting local monuments. Since many librarians were still unfamiliar with Wikipedia at the time, the first step was to teach the librarians how to edit. Today, the project involves more than 200 libraries and librarians all across Catalonia. 

Fenoll explains that the BiblioWikis project was a natural fit because libraries and Wikipedia share the same mission of "facilitating access to knowledge." 

Another reason for the project's success is that it contributes to closing the gender gap, since a majority of librarians, according to Fenoll, are women.  

1Lib1Ref Campaign  

The latest collaboration between Wikipedia and libraries around the world is the 1Lib1Ref campaign, or One Librarian, One Reference (1Bib1Ref in Catalan and Spanish). This campaign invites librarians to edit articles on Wikipedia, especially to improve articles by adding citations.  

By participating in this campaign, librarians who edit at least one article by adding a reference add "credibility" to a Wikipedia, that "sometimes has problems with sources and traceability," explains Fenoll. 

She hopes that the collaboration continues because "it's part of a librarian's DNA to contribute" to ensuring that science and knowledge is open and accessible to all, as is the goal of Wikipedia. 

Nuria Ribas says that the community of female editors is growing, and she remains optimistic about the future, assuring that "Wikipedia is a reflection of society - and we are evolving." 


Listen to the latest episode of our podcast Filling the Sink to learn more about the Catalan Wikipedia.