Mind the Gap

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

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

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.

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: gender feminism Wikipedia gender equality
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