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

The missing women: a quantitative problem

The Wikipedia account of the history of women in engineering is written in each individual page about a woman engineer, as well as in a dedicated page. In terms of the individual pages, there are various quantitative inequalities in the number and connectedness of pages about women engineers compared with men engineers. The disparity in the number of pages about women compared with men on Wikipedia holds true in the specific case of engineers.

Wikipedia has notability criteria; every person who is an engineer is not eligible for a page, only those who distinguish themselves by meeting certain standards.[6] For a fair comparison, we should therefore measure Wikipedia against the ‘notable’ or senior figures who might be eligible for representation in an encyclopaedia, rather than the average for the field as a whole. In 2014, women accounted for four per cent of Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering. However, on the boards of British businesses, 13 per cent of FTSE Board Directors in STEM sectors were women as of 2012. Women are also better represented in academia, where 17 per cent of professors in STEM subjects are women (Peters, 2018). These qualities both meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria, and thus it is fair to expect that somewhere between four per cent and 17 per cent of engineers on Wikipedia should be women.

It is difficult to precisely count how many pages about women engineers are on Wikipedia, but using the categories into which pages are grouped, it is possible to estimate.[7] At the time of writing, there are approximately 758 pages about women engineers on the English language version of Wikipedia. Eight people are identified as being transgender or transsexual. There are 18,345 pages about men engineers. Approximately four per cent of pages on engineers are therefore about women. The percentage remains the same if fictional characters are removed from the figures.[8]

Figure 1

Newspaper clipping from 1969 showing women engineers Margaret Rowbotham Beatrice Shilling and Margaret Partridge

Portraits of three women engineers: Margaret Rowbotham, Beatrice Shilling and Margaret Partridge. The contributions of notable women engineers such as Margaret Rowbotham and Margaret Partridge have only recently been added to Wikipedia

On Wikidata, the sister site of Wikipedia that houses information in the form of linked open structured data, it is much easier to ascertain who has been attributed the values ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘transwoman’ by writing queries to filter out those whose gender has not been explicitly stated.[9] In Wikidata, there are 1,175 distinct entries for women and transwomen engineers, and there are 29,276 distinct entries for men engineers. Women and transwomen therefore account for 2.4 per cent of engineers whose gender is known. The similarities between the ratio of men to women in the data on Wikidata and the ratio based upon category data from Wikipedia suggests that Wikipedia articles are categorised in a way that accurately indicates gender proportions on Wikipedia, at least for the field of engineering.

Based on these figures, Wikipedia's coverage of women engineers approximately reflects the proportion of women considered to be notable by one of the field’s most respected organisations (the Royal Academy of Engineering) but is well below the proportion of notable women in business and academia.

The current proportion of women engineers on Wikipedia is strongly influenced by the past.

Figure 2

Screenshot from Wikipedia entitled portraits of engineers most of whom are men

Screenshot of Wikimedia Commons Portraits of Engineers: as this screenshot demonstrates, the visual coverage of engineers is also skewed to favour the ‘pale, male and stale’ – not a single woman engineer’s portrait is included in the category ‘Portraits of engineers’

Only 1.5 per cent of the engineers not listed as living are women.[10] The low number of deceased (historic) women in engineering fits within a broader trend: Eduardo Graells-Garrido, Mounia Lalmas and Filippo Menszer observe that there is ‘minimal presence of women [living before 1900] in Wikipedia’ (Graells-Garrido et al, 2015). They attribute this to the notability guidelines for Wikipedia, which specify that biographies in Wikipedia should be about a person who has ‘received a well-known and significant award of honour’ or who has ‘made a widely recognised contribution that is part of the enduring historical record in his or her specific field’.[11]

Research has suggested that authors who edit online articles ‘do not view online media as a site of intervention’ in part because ‘they generally view online representations as a reflection of offline contexts’ (Mendick and Moreau, 2010). This is despite the fact that editorial decisions are largely individual decisions. The ratios of articles on women versus men on Wikipedia are not significantly different to the gender-balance of the field in broader culture, particularly when historical imbalances are taken into account.

Unlike many online authors, authors in the wider world have chosen to intervene in how women in engineering are presented. Various authors have highlighted the difficulties that women through history have faced when attempting to participate in the field of engineering, often noting the lack of recognition of women’s abilities and contributions.[12] In Mothers and Daughters of Invention, first published in 1995, Autumn Stanley argues that ‘serious treatment of women inventors is nothing less than to make a beginning at revising the history of technology’ (Stanley, 1995). Because women have been systemically excluded from history and were typically not recognised, this means that Wikipedia perpetuates this omission of women. Wikipedia mirrors broader human culture in the way that women from the past are only credited in very small numbers for their work in the field of engineering.

By contrast, 6.3 per cent of living people categorised as engineers are clearly categorised as women. On Wikidata, 901 women and transwomen engineers are living, compared with 12,072 men, or around 6.9 per cent. Recent statistics from WES reveal that 11 per cent of the engineering workforce is female, and that the UK has the lowest percentage in Europe, with less than ten per cent (Peters, 2018). By this measure, Wikipedia under-represents women in engineering.

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of eleven successful female engineers on a photoshoot

Vicky Lawton’s photograph ‘Portrait of an Engineer’: as this portrait commissioned by the IET indicates, the contemporary ‘Portrait of an Engineer’ is much more diverse

Looking beyond the number of article pages, other statistics indicate the disparity between pages on women engineers compared with men. Pages on men engineers have, on average, 36 incoming links, and are 7116 bytes long. Pages on women have, on average, 11 links, and are 6850 bytes long. The difference in the number of links is substantial. It also has an impact on the visibility of women engineers. That women are only one third as likely to be linked to from another article compounds the relatively small ratio of women to men and means that it is much less likely that a person browsing Wikipedia will find a woman engineer than a man engineer. This supports previous research that found women to be less central in their networks. It is particularly problematic because structural information on Wikipedia is used to feed knowledge databases and is pulled through into search engines such as Google, rendering women less visible beyond the encyclopaedia itself (Wagner et al, 2016).  The difference in length is relatively minor, though as we shall see in the following section, article length is not a guarantee of quality. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181008/003