Published On: Thu, Mar 8th, 2018

Sweden tries to increase gender equality on Wikipedia

EVER since Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, referred to Sweden as a “hornets’ nest of revolutionary feminism” and as a “Saudi Arabia of feminism”, Swedes have worn this as a badge of honour. Now its foreign ministry has an ambitious plan to increase gender equality on the internet.

Its precise target is Wikipedia, a user-generated online encyclopedia on which some 90% of the content is created by men. Of its biographies, 80% are about males. On International Women’s Day on March 8th (as The Economist went to press) the Swedes were hosting “WikiGap” edit-a-thons and seminars in 54 of its embassies, from Abuja to Vilnius, in partnership with Wikimedia, the foundation behind the platform. The hope was that participants would write more entries about notable women.

“Knowledge is power,” explains Margot Wallström, the foreign minister, and because these days knowledge and information come from the “clearly unbalanced” internet, this is a problem, she adds. A more gender-equal Wikipedia and internet more broadly should help create a more gender-equal world, goes the thinking. Of course, the web is a lot bigger than Wikipedia, but it makes sense as a starting point. The Swedes hope that tech firms will be inspired to take gender inequality in online content more seriously.

Wikimedia supports trying to narrow the gap. Since a survey in 2011 revealed that Wikipedia was largely written by men under 40, it set targets for greater participation of women (and of people from the southern hemisphere). “We want the best content,” says John Andersson from Wikimedia Sweden. “By bringing in a more diverse group of people, particularly women, this leads to a better set of articles.” But the goal is not gender parity across biographies. “If there is a bias towards men, coming from history books, Wikipedia merely reflects this.”

No matter how hard the volunteers have been typing away, the edit-a-thons are a drop in the ocean of the roughly 40m edits made on Wikipedia each month. They also do not tackle the deeper question of what is stopping women from creating more content online. “Getting more women to understand that Wikipedia is a site that they can edit without needing to create an account would be one step forward,” says Eszter Hargittai of Zurich University. If in every big city around the world one woman becomes a weekly contributor, this could have an effect, says Mr Andersson. This may well be so—though you cannot assume that all women want to write about women.

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Sweden tries to increase gender equality on Wikipedia