Tag Archives: subject headings

American Women Wikipedians: Categorygate and Working for Free

Amanda Filipacchi’s article Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists shows that sexism in categorizing information is alive and well. The category “American Women Novelists” is especially depresssing/ironic/unsurprising (take your pick) for librarians, editors and other knowledge workers because we thought we fought and won this battle years ago (circa 1975). Not many users of Wikipedia are old enough to remember library subject headings such as “Women as Poets” or “Poetesses,” but sexist ways of organizing information were standard operating procedure in the bad old days. Changing times and the active efforts of a largely female paid workforce made some real differences in how information was presented in libraries, textbooks, encyclopedias, and educational resources of all kinds.

Now that the internet has ‘disrupted’ the production of educational information, much of the largely female paid workforce has been displaced by volunteers working in a system of peer production and sharing. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, not least because it is free and immediately available to anyone with an internet connection. Yet as we all know, “nine out of ten Wikipedians continue to be men.” Many possible explanations have been offered for the gender gap, but I think it is a labor issue.  As a librarian, I couldn’t agree more with DNLee’s statement that “This is work. I am a professional. Professionals get paid. However, even if my ‘old economy’ view of encyclopedia publishing seems sadly out of date, asking women to contribute unpaid work raises some complicated issues. As Adrianne Wadewitz pointed out, “In actively recruiting women to Wikipedia, we have to be aware of the systemic inequities in the amount of time women have available for unpaid labor.”

If women miraculously had more free time to devote to Wikipedia, would the “add more women and stir” approach really solve the sexism problem? Wadewitz notes that activism around the gender gap rests on some rather questionable assumptions (It is the responsibility of women to fix sexism on Wikipedia. Women do not further patriarchal knowledge and power structures. Women will edit underrepresented topics. Women will make Wikipedia a nicer place.) The drive to get more women to contribute is well-intentioned and admirable, but perhaps it runs the risk of repeating old patterns? Women are not a single entity and perhaps some of them would prefer not to be in the “American Women Wikipedians” category.