The New Yorker Missed that Wikipedia Misses Women

Simple line drawing of a side view of a woman holding a laptop. Behind it, dots form the shape of a penis and lines form a vulva.
Eustancey Tilly Edits Wikipedia @2020 Michele Beaulieux

My letter to the editor of The New Yorker will be published in the December 14th issue! It points out the sexism in Wikipedia and in Louis Menand’s review of the anthology, Wikipedia @ 20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution.

The letter is only seven sentences, so in this post, I explain more about my experiences with gender bias in Wikipedia and then present some ideas about how to combat it.

First, here’s the letter:

Menand suggests that “the reason most people today who work in and on digital media have such warm feelings about Wikipedia” may be because of the site’s “hacker ethos.” Yet there are inherent problems with the simple principle that anyone can edit. Fewer than twenty per cent of editors are women; as a result, the site often exhibits and perpetuates gender bias. Only nineteen per cent of its biographical pages feature women, and many articles on gendered topics lack a neutral point of view. This is frightening, given that Wikipedia is now many people’s go-to information source. As one of the women who have entered the fray, I have found editing gender bias out of Wikipedia to be a Sisyphean task. If, as Menand asserts, “Wikipedia is neoliberalism applied to knowledge,” it is yet another example of how the invisible hand has failed to create an equitable society.

Michele Beaulieux, Chicago, Ill, The New Yorker

Louis Menand’s book review does not synopsize the anthology that he’s reviewing accurately. As he waxes poetic about Wikipedia, Menand somehow doesn’t find the topic of bias in Wikipedia worth mentioning, even though a quick glance at the table of contents reveals that the anthology directly addresses what Menand misses: the chapter title for an essay by Jackie Koerner, one of the co-editors, is: “Wikipedia Has a Bias Problem.” Other essays in the collection also discuss the challenges of operating in a male-dominated environment. Somehow, nevertheless, Menand inaccurately concludes that the anthology’s authors’ “consensus is that Wikipedia is the major success story of the Internet era.” Menand missed the lack of women, and The New Yorker missed that he missed us. 

This isn’t The New Yorker’s first miss. I have seen words like “policeman” and “mailman” in its pages and wondered why the more descriptive and inclusive terms—police officer and letter carrier—weren’t used. I recently shared “My Rejected Letters to The New Yorker,” most of which point out sexism in the magazine’s coverage. And in “Connecting the Dots: Jeffrey Toobin, Sexism, The New Yorker,” I discuss how rape culture supports authors who violate others and impacts what they write and what gets reported about them in The New Yorker and beyond.

Underneath their veneers of balance, Wikipedia and The New Yorker reflect the rape culture in which we live, a culture in which a man who brags about grabbing women by their private parts occupies the White House. Counteracting rape culture takes conscious concerted effort. With The New Yorker, my only recourse is to write letters to the editor after the fact, and hope they get published, but I can edit Wikipedia. (And you can, too.)

Editing Wikipedia, as I said in my letter, however, is fraught. The toxic culture and vicious edit wars can eat your life. Horrified by the lack of balance in pages covering sexual violence, I started editing them. While editing was initially empowering, I was soon watching my edits get reversed—edits that I contend were reasonable and helped establish a more balanced perspective. I realized I was up against forces I did not have the time or emotional energy to battle. To maintain my sanity, I stopped editing the pages on which I could contribute to assuring a “neutral point of view.” Now, rather than work on the contentious sexual violence pages themselves, I work around the edges, putting in citations to show, for example, that the Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast, romanticizes an oppressive relationship. But even that requires fortitude. 

The information source that many people treat as gospel is conveying damaging attitudes. I can imagine young victim-survivors of sexual violence falling into deeper self-blame after looking up sexual violence topics in Wikipedia. Wikipedia reflects the rape culture in which we live and shapes our worldview from that dominant perspective. And by publishing an inaccurate review that did not acknowledge Wikipedia’s failures, The New Yorker abetted Wikipedia’s inaccuracies. 

So what do we do? For starters, change how Wikipedia operates. To resolve disputes, Wikipedia has layers of recourse, but the organization is even more male-dominated in its upper echelons. So I’ve been thinking: how do you create an organizational structure that will be conducive to female participation, where men don’t dominate decision making, where decision makers reflect the people served? From my view from the edges of Wikipedia, here are three things that might expand women’s participation. (Black, Indigeneous, and People of Color [BIPOC] and people from countries outside North America are also not fairly represented as editors in Wikipedia, and these suggestions might be relevant for expanding their participation as well.)

First, make sure decision-making rules support women and BIPOC. Political science professors Jessica Preece and Christopher Karpowitz found that decision making rules impact women’s participation. Wikipedia’s decision-making rules can encourage or discourage everyone’s participation. Let’s make sure they support balance.

Second, encourage mentoring. For example, when evaluating people for leadership roles, require that they have mentored newcomers. On Wikipedia “talk pages” and in other backroom discussions, I see many exchanges in which seasoned editors do not support editors who are obviously new, stumbling through the rules, but trying their best. It takes more energy to help someone do things correctly than it does to delete what they’ve earnestly attempted to contribute. Incentivizing people to make that extra effort to help out others would create a more nourishing culture and foster contributions from diverse groups.

Third, value real-time interactions by voice, video, or in person. True, Wikipedia is an online platform designed for online reading and editing. But we all know that online interactions can quickly devolve. When evaluating people for leadership roles in Wikipedia, give weight to those who organize and participate in real-time events, which build community and understanding. With this pandemic, we’ve become more proficient with real-time virtual communication technologies. Women are more frequently interrupted in conversations, but we recently saw the value of the mute button in civilizing the presidential debates. Real-time interactions can use a virtual talking stick in which the person talking has a set amount of time and others are muted. 

The general public tacitly accepts Wikipedia as a balanced source of information, but Wikipedia has only a veneer of neutrality. As long as its editorship is not balanced, bias will continue to be normalized. Wikipedia has the illusion of equity. But equal access is not enough. Theoretically, anyone can edit, but the issue is more than just getting in the door. Editing takes a lot more effort for some people than others, and some people have more free time than others. The playing field for this crucial information source is uneven. As a result, removing the bias simply through editing will be an uphill battle. Wikipedia’s information will become more equitable when its organizational structure is. Its organizational structure will change when we recognize the rape culture we live in reflected all around us, including, for example, in The New Yorker. 

The letter comprises the seven most edited sentences of my life! And that’s saying a lot, as I’m the queen of revision. I want to thank my twin, Jacqueline White, and my friend, Hannah Hayes, for their insightful perspectives. I am also appreciative of The New Yorker’s editors who helped hone the letter. 

© 2020-2022 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 10.02.22

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