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The history of women in engineering on Wikipedia

There are fifteen men mentioned on the Wikipedia ‘History of engineering’ page, but no women.[13] The ‘History of women in engineering’ is represented in an article page of its own, in addition to being told through the biographies of individual women.[14] That there is a separate page for the history of women in engineering implies that women are not a part of mainstream engineering history, but simply a sub-branch whose involvement is not necessary to know about to appreciate history as a whole. Wikipedia’s categorisation of women in this way hit headlines when women were moved from the category ‘American novelists’ to ‘American women novelists’, as many critics argued that this implied that women were inferior (Filipacchi, 2013).

Examination of the ‘History of women in engineering’ page offers the opportunity to look at the quality of information and how Wiki-editors engage with the topic. A review of the page indicates that there are many reasons to be concerned about how the history of women in engineering is being written in a public forum. The page presents a ‘History of women in engineering’ to the English-speaking world that is limited in scope, disorganised, and visibly neglected by Wiki-editors. The effect of this is that the subject appears insignificant.

The ‘History of women in engineering’ page runs to 2,342 words, which is just over double the number of words in the general ‘History of engineering’ article page on Wikipedia. Though longer, the page specifically relating to women has been edited fewer times, and by half the number of individual editors.[15] Both pages are ranked by Wiki-editors as being only ‘Start-Class’, a term that suggests significant room for improvement in coverage and in terms of referencing. However, despite the similar ranking, the impression presented to readers by the page specifically about women is worse.

This can be related to the ‘gender gap’ problem. On the article’s Talk page, where content is scrutinised, discussed, and proposed, WikiProjects formed by groups of editors can lay claim to articles in order to help to maintain them. The WikiProject claims on the ‘History of women in engineering’ page demonstrates that it is considered a ‘woman's topic’ that is not of broader interest: both the ‘History of engineering’ page and the ‘History of women in engineering’ page have been claimed as being within the scope of WikiProject Engineering, but whilst the ‘History of engineering’ page has been rated as ‘Top-importance’, the page on the ‘History of women in engineering’ ‘has not yet received a rating’ despite it being flagged as relevant in November 2012.[16]

The lack of interest in the topic from male Wiki-editors is reflected in the quality of the content of the article. The page on the ‘History of women in engineering’ currently has a warning banner stating that the ‘article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay that states a Wikipedia editor’s personal feelings about a topic.’[17] This banner has been on the page since August 2011, proclaiming to the world that the topic is neglected and badly written, without having achieved its goal to encourage those who see the banner ‘please help improve’, to respond actively.

Figure 4

Screenshot from the Wikipedia page Women in Engineering

Screenshot of Wikipedia page ‘History of women in engineering’: the banner warning readers of poor quality diminishes the perception of women in engineering history even before they begin reading. The page does require improvement in terms of style and coverage, and has done for years

This impression is apparent behind-the-scenes too. In 2016, a Wiki-editor named TheBlinkster wrote on the Talk page that they felt that context was missing from several parts of the article.[18] The editor concluded: ‘I agree that this reads like somebody’s opinion essay rather than an NPOV description of women’s participation in engineering, and frankly it looks biased.’ They believed that the neutral point of view, a key ‘pillar’ of Wikipedia, was lacking: that the page is bad by Wiki-editor standards.

In a study from 2012, Bear and Collier concluded that women were uncomfortable being critical or editing other contributors’ work (Bear and Collier, 2012). It appears that the page on the ‘History of women in engineering’ is considered a ‘woman’s topic’, and women are less likely to make significant changes to a page, which perhaps explains how, in nearly seven years, no editor has improved this article sufficiently to warrant removal of the banner.

There are also tags within the main body text warning those who scroll further down the page to be wary of what they are reading. There are two tags requesting better sourcing, one requesting a more specific explanation of a statement, and another tagging a statement as ‘dubious – discuss’, both of which question the notability of a specific woman mentioned, Thelma Estrin. Tags warning a reader that they should not trust claims about the importance of one of the limited number of women mentioned in the article implicitly call into question the importance of any women engineer who might not have been cherry-picked for specific emphasis on the topic page.

Even discounting the warning banner and tags, the content covered on the page also signals that there are limitations to its quality. There is a short section on ‘Inventors’, naming Hypatia of Alexandria, Tabitha Babbit, Sarah Guppy and Mary Dixon Kies as examples of inventors working ‘before engineering was recognized as a formal profession’. In leaping from a single example from around the year 400 to three from the late eighteenth century without providing any context for these choices, this section of the page suggests to readers that no woman of note was an inventor between these periods.

After the ‘Inventors’ section, the page jumps forward to the nineteenth century, from which point it predominantly focuses on the ‘History of women in engineering’ in the USA. Information on two European women, Alice Perry and Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu, is duplicated and appears under both the nineteenth century and twentieth century headers. Further down the page, there are a smattering of statistics about women in engineering in the USA, Australia (one sentence) and the UK (two sentences).

This American-bias has not gone unnoticed. On the Talk page for the History of women in Engineering, Wiki-editor Actio wrote that:

It seems strange to leave out the ‘History of women in engineering’ in Eastern Europe especially after the foundation of the Soviet Union and its rapid modernization, and in the so-called East Bloc subsequently—not to mention elsewhere in the world, North, South, East, and West (Japan and China, and Latin America, for instance?) Hope this can be repaired by someone with access to relevant data.[20]

This statement was written in June 2017 and has yet to be acted upon. The narrow geographical coverage suggests to readers that the History of women in engineering is a niche topic that few people feel is worthy of contributing to, and also that the topic itself is only relevant to the USA.

Thus, though the page on the ‘History of women in engineering’ is longer than the ‘History of engineering’ page, it is presented to the reader as being qualitatively much worse by Wikipedia editors’ standards: ‘women's history’ of engineering is lower quality than the (implicitly male) neutral page, where women do not appear at all.[21]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181008/004