Go back to article: The history of women in engineering on Wikipedia

Introduction: the ‘gender gap’

Wikipedia has a ‘women problem’ (Gleik, 2013). Engineering also has a women problem (Peters, 2018). Sadly, biases in the real world combine with biases in the online world, and the result is that women engineers are nowhere near as visible online as they should be. This article focuses on the way that women are poorly served, though there are other forms of systemic bias in Wikipedia too that mean that other groups of people are also under-represented.[1]

This visibility is a real problem. A 2010 report conducted for the UK Research Councils found that ‘the internet is central’ to the provision of information about science, engineering and technology (Mendick and Moreau, 2010). Wikipedia ranks as the fifth most viewed website in the world (Gray, 2017), therefore it is central to the provision of information. Because of its widespread use, the way that the history of women in engineering is represented on Wikipedia is relevant to how the field is understood by large numbers of people.

This has relevance to the field itself, as well as its perception by a lay public. Choices concerning STEM careers are likely to be influenced by what people see online. A 2018 report by the Women’s Engineering Society details how almost half of young women do not even consider careers in STEM sectors, in part because they believe that STEM careers are ‘better suited to the opposite sex’ (Peters, 2018). This report links such (mis-)perceptions acquired at an early age with a lack of enthusiasm for pursuing STEM careers. Though students and teachers are aware of potential credibility issues with Wikipedia, evidence indicates that both groups still use it to find information and that teachers even use Wikipedia more often than the average adult user of the internet.[2] Young people and their teachers seeking information on engineering online are likely to have the view that engineering is not a field for women confirmed by what they find on Wikipedia.

Research has established that, despite possessing the goal to represent ‘the sum of all human knowledge’,[3] Wikipedia actually under-represents women.[4] Women are under-represented both in terms of the number of editors actively contributing to Wikipedia, and the number of articles about them (Hill and Shaw, 2013; Khanna, 2012). These two different forms of under-representation have been linked, and some researchers suggest that the emotional labour required of the smaller group of women editors of Wikipedia deters them from editing on topics that they perceive will receive pushback from the majority of (male) editors. Furthermore, in the articles about women that do exist, research indicates that Wikipedia editors are more likely to mention marital status in their metadata, less likely to include language relating to cognition compared with sex and are less central in link networks.[5] Pages about women differ from those about men in terms of quantity and quality.

The danger of under-representation of women engineers on Wikipedia is that we often assume that everything to be known is there – and that if something is not there, this is because the topic, person or place is not important (Paling, 2015; Kennedy, 2017). Omissions of information about the work of women, or women themselves, suggest that women have not contributed.

This article analyses some of the pages in Wikipedia to establish how the ‘gender gap’ affects biographical pages about women engineers on a quantitative level and the ‘History of women in engineering’ at a qualitative level.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181008/002