Mind the Gap

Feminists attempt to correct the gender imbalance on Wikipedia’s art pages

Editing sessions organised around the world attempt to correct the gender bias in the biographies of women on Wikipedia. shahid tantray
01 December, 2017

On a Saturday morning in September, around 20 people assembled in a room at Khoj International Artists’ Association—a not-for-profit organisation that promotes alternative arts—in a narrow alley in south Delhi’s Khirki Extension. As sunlight streamed in through the large windows, the group, which consisted mostly of women, sat in rows and typed hurriedly on their laptops. A woman, who was walking around and supervising the writers, paused to address the room. “No copy-pasting—every piece of information has to be rephrased,” she said.

Everyone present was part of a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, an editing session where anyone can be invited to create pages or revise existing ones on the voluntarily edited online encyclopaedia. The theme, women in Indian contemporary art, was chosen by Khoj and Feminism in India, or FII—a digital feminist platform working on gender, media and technology—whose founding editor, Japleen Pasricha, was supervising the session. Participants had been asked to create pages on any Indian female artist from a list of 30, including Pilloo Pochkhanawala, a sculptor, and Gayatri Sinha, an art critic and curator. Most of those women did not have Wikipedia pages, and of the few that already did, many were “stubs”—Wikipedia’s term for pages with insufficient content.

FII attempted to select artists who had not been covered extensively on Wikipedia. “Let’s say we are doing politicians,” Pasricha said. “We will not go after Smriti Irani or Sushma Swaraj because they already have a very exhaustive page.” FII, which organises monthly edit-a-thons, chooses themes that correspond to topical events; for June, it commemorated LGBT pride month, while in August, it focussed on women who were prominent in India’s freedom struggle. The theme at Khoj had attracted several participants with backgrounds in the arts and social sciences. Hira Naaz, a master’s student in gender studies at Ambedkar University in Delhi, edited a page on the Mumbai-based artist and curator Archana Hande. Mahima Saraswat, an elementary art teacher at Delhi Public School in Noida, chose to write on the artist Madhvi Parekh. “Her husband”—the painter Manu Parekh—“is the one in the limelight and already has a Wikipedia page,” she told me. Pasricha explained to the participants that Wikipedia articles about women are often biased. “A lot of content has more information on, let’s say, their personal life,” she said. “It is not focussed on their careers or what they are doing.” Wikipedia’s own guide for writing about women claims that biography pages on the encyclopaedia are far more likely to refer to divorce and marriage when the subject is a woman. The number of women subjects is also lower than men: according to a 2016 report by the Wikimedia Foundation—the American non-profit organisation that owns Wikipedia—approximately 17 percent of the biographies on English Wikipedia feature women as subjects. A survey from December 2011 indicated that the absence of women editors was even more severe: of 6,503 respondents, 90 percent of the editors were men, 9 percent were women and 1 percent identified as transgender or transsexual. In India, a minuscule 3 percent of around 131 respondents who had handled Wikipedia pages were women.

But the interactive approach of Wikipedia has prompted efforts to correct this gender bias. Wikipedia’s WikiProjectWomen, a group started in 2013, has projects such as Women in Green, which makes improvements to stub pages about women, and Women in Red, which organises online initiatives such as #1day1woman, encouraging participants to create or improve one article every day. Art and Feminism, a New York-based campaign highlighting the paucity of women artists on Wikipedia, has held edit-a-thons every March since 2014 in cities around the world, including Adelaide, Florence, Montreal and London. FII has organised 11 edit-a-thons in Delhi between October last year and this September, beginning with a session on Indian women poets and authors. Participants have created pages about the queer feminist Pramada Menon, the human-rights activist Zakia Soman, the scientist Anuradha TK and the women’s collective Pinjra Tod.

The edit-a-thon on Indian artists, though, showed that these efforts can sometimes be aborted because pages that do not adhere to Wikipedia’s strict guidelines are swiftly removed. Eighteen new Wikipedia pages were uploaded at the end of the event at Khoj. But when I tried reading them two days later, six pages had been deleted for “unambiguous advertising or promotion” or “unambiguous copyright infringement.” Two articles—on Hande and the Pakistani American artist Seher Shah—had been redirected to the “draft” stage, giving their authors a chance to make corrections. The rest were irretrievable. Four of the existing pages, including the one on Parekh, had been labelled as “orphans”—articles that Wikipedia considers to be obscure because they do not contain links to other pages. Most intriguing, however, was a message on a page about the artist Gauri Gill. “This article may have been created or edited in return for undisclosed payments,” it said. Pasricha told me that she had spoken with Wikipedia administrators, who suggested that the participants might have copy-pasted from sources. Pasricha added that some of the drafts on the artists had flowery language or too many adjectives—Hande’s style, for instance, was described as “tongue-in-cheek”—that might have violated Wikipedia’s policy of neutrality. Despite prior editing experience not being a prerequisite, familiarity with the encyclopaedia’s rules could help editors.

Rohini Lakshané, a consultant for the Centre for Internet and Society—a non-profit organisation in Bengaluru that conducts research on digital technologies—said that edit-a-thons, particularly those by experienced editors, are useful for battling the gender gap in Wikipedia’s content, but do not necessarily help the participation gap. She was the chairperson of a Wikimedia group focussing on the gender gap for over a year in 2013, during which time she attempted to tackle gender issues in Wikimedia India, such as sexism and privacy invasions. She recalled an incident at a Wikipedia event where her photograph was taken without her consent and uploaded on Wikimedia Commons, a repository of media files. “It wasn’t a picture of me delivering a talk or something like that,” she said. “It was taken in a lunch hall.” When Lakshané requested that the picture be taken down, the administrator responded that consent was not required. It was deleted later because it was not relevant to the event. For Lakshané, edit-a-thons and other such outreach initiatives are “the lowest-hanging fruit”—a step towards a more inclusive approach that would take on systemic gender bias and issues of diversity.

The day before the edit-a-thon, I had browsed through a list of India’s contemporary artists on Wikipedia. Among a list of 64, I counted nine women, including the sculptor and installation artist Bharti Kher and the painter Anjolie Ela Menon. I reviewed the list a week after the event. The numbers had not changed, as the participants had listed their articles under other categories, such as “21st century women artists” and “Indian painters.” The list was still disproportionately dominated by male artists.