Science

Wiki editors boost entries on female scientists to mark Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, but many other women scientists are invisible, especially on Wikipedia

Portrait of Ada Lovelace, considered to be the first computer programmer and the namesake of a day to honor women scientists, shown in London last year.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

For five years now, fans of female scientists have set aside the date of Oct. 15th to recognize their accomplishments, naming the effort after the remarkable Ada Lovelace, a 19th century woman who began her life as the only child of the poet Lord Byron with his wife. Lovelace then went on to write the first algorithm intended to be used by a machine, rendering her, in effect, the world's first computer programmer.

The early years of celebrating Lovelace and other women saw requests for people around the world to blog about women in science. But many of the celebrations held across 10 countries for Tuesday's Ada Lovelace Day will be like the one planned at Brown University, where organizers are holding an "edit-a-thon.'' Participants will be asked to make new Wikipedia entries on women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as the STEM fields.

Over the past few years, the U.S. and the U.K. both have seen a series of brouhahas about how women are erased from the public eye, whether unintentionally, unconsciously or accidentally. There’ve been dust-ups over why more notable women aren’t featured on British currency; why women are missing as keynote or panel speakers in technology or journalism conferences; and why Wikipedia is overwhelmingly written and edited by men.

Wikimedia, the foundation that runs the online, volunteer-created and -curated reference source, has itself revealed that imbalance in surveys which showed that nine out of ten of its contributors - “editors,” in Wikipedia jargon - were men.

"When that's your mission, you can't do it with only half the population contributing." -Sarah Stierch

It's recognized as a problem. Sarah Stierch had been editing Wikipedia for seven years when she heard about the gender ratios. She joined the foundation and has worked there on outreach.

“The Wikipedia community’s mission is to encompass all the world’s knowledge and provide it to every human being for free,” she said. “When that’s your mission, you can’t do it with only half the population contributing.”

Increasing women’s participation is essential, she said. Even on such entries as pregnancy and abortion, she explained, 80 percent of the contributors and editors are men, debating and deciding on such questions as what the image and subject line should be and how to identify the article.

As research migrated online, Wikipedia rapidly became the first-stop reference source for just about everything. And notable women in science, technology, engineering, and math are not well-represented in its pages.

Who writes the history is key

“Most of history has been written by men about men,” said Maia Weinstock, a science writer who is the co-organizer of the Brown University edit-a-thon. “Many women have contributed important things to history that have been left out of the official records, whether that’s in science or any area of life. Wikipedia is one of - if not the - most popular encyclopedias in the world, so to not have as many women represented in science in particular is a travesty.”

The goal of tuesday’s event is twofold, she said: To increase the number of women involved in editing Wikipedia, and simultaneously to increase the representation of STEM women within it as well.

Fixing the problem of too few female Wikipedia contributors hasn't proved simple, however. Wikimedia's Stierch said that while women do attend the group edit-a-thons, her evaluations show that few of those female beginners continue as Wikipedia editors. Why? The most common thing she hears is: "I'm too busy.''

With multiple family and professional obligations, women tell her, at the end of the day they'd rather relax on Facebook than get involved in editing debates on Wikipedia. 

Wikipedia edit-a-thons are a recent addition to Ada Lovelace Day, which British social technology consultant Suw Charman-Anderson launched five years ago after getting frustrated with male technology conference organizers who said that they couldn’t find any women to feature as panelists or speakers.

For the first day, Charman-Anderson corralled thousands of people to write blog entries about women in STEM. The Wikipedia-focused events - seven will be held this year, with five in England and one in Brussels, in addition to the effort today at Brown - make those efforts a little more permanent.

“Love it or hate it,” she said, “Wikipedia is a really valuable resource for a lot of people. It’s the first place they go to if they want to learn about something.”

Changing the real world

In some cases, there have been controversies about whether Wikipedia’s mostly-male editing process causes women’s contributions to get downgraded or erased altogether. When asked whether the Ada Lovelace Day edit-a-thons were in danger of producing entries that might disappear, Charman-Anderson said she thought not.

“In a well-organized edit-a-thon, you do your research first on the women you want to have covered, finding information on them so that the attendees aren’t faced with a completely blank slate,'' she said. "That is a permanent addition to a broader cultural record of women’s achievements and activities.”

For those involved, the wider goal is to change the real world. They hope to inspire young women to enter STEM occupations and to push past obstacles by letting them see the models that have done so in the past. Said Charman-Anderson, “This isn’t about trying to change the minds of misogynists. It's about trying to support women in STEM and girls who think they might want to have a career in STEM.”

For the Brown University edit-a-thon, Weinstock will supply research that will enable attendees - whether attending in-person or remotely - to launch entries on notable STEM women who haven’t been covered yet. The event will include instruction for beginners on how to contribute to Wikipedia, which Weinstock notes “isn’t intuitive.”

 “There are so many amazing women who people have just not heard of who have contributed something they use or know,” Weinstock said. “Our efforts are trying to rectify that, one Wikipedia article at a time.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter