The write side of history: Why a physicist set out to fix Wikipedia’s lack of entries on women

(Courtesy of Technology Networks)

(Courtesy of Technology Networks)

Contribute your own entries and edits as part of Dr. Jess Wade’s project.

Award-winning physicist Dr. Jess Wade realised that in order for girls to feel confident pursuing careers in science, they first need to be able to see other women doing science. 

That’s why she is on a mission to highlight the accomplishments of women in the field by contributing one Wikipedia entry each day about a woman scientist or engineer. By reading about the work of female leaders in science, Jess hopes girls will be inspired to pursue related careers.

“I think it originates from misconceptions about who does science, stereotypes about boys’ and girls’ interests and a lack of confidence in their own ability,” Jess says of why more girls don’t study science. “They are equally as able as the boys, if not more able, but they’re not confident that they’re good enough.”

 
 

Recently, Jess decided to focus her efforts on Wikipedia. Although it is one of the most popular websites in the world, women make up less than 20% of all Wikipedia biographies. “We need to start advocating and championing the really great women who are doing and have done incredible science,” Jess stresses. 

Since beginning her campaign two years ago, Jess has written almost 700 entries about female and minority scientists. But she’s hoping to recruit others to join her efforts. I spoke with Jess about her work with Wikipedia and how Assembly readers can start contributing to her project today.


Tess Thomas (TT): Why did you choose Wikipedia as a way to address the lack of female representation in science?

Dr. Jess Wade (JW): Wikipedia is obviously an incredibly important site. It’s the fifth most popular website in the world and it gets billions of page views a month. It’s used literally all over the world. I think it’s in over 300 languages. But there’s a huge, huge mismatch between the demographics of people who contribute to Wikipedia and the demographics of the people who read it. It’s about 90% male editors, the majority of whom are white and based in North America. As a result of that, there’s a huge inequality in the stuff that’s covered on Wikipedia. Despite making up 51% of the population, women are only 17% of the biographies.

So in my fight for equality I realised that I’m not going to be able to change society overnight… but what we could all start to do is better champion and celebrate the contributions of people who society has overlooked, whether that is historically or in the present day. Wikipedia is a really great opportunity to do that, and at the same time, democratise access to information.

So in my fight for equality I realised that I’m not going to be able to change society overnight… but what we could all start to do is better champion and celebrate the contributions of people who society has overlooked, whether that is historically or in the present day.
— Dr. Jess Wade

TT: Has learning about more of these women influenced your own work in any way?

JW: Such a good question. I talk about Wikipedia a lot and I’ve never been asked that. Every single time I edit a Wikipedia page, it is so inspiring not only to see the journeys that these people have been on but the science that they do. You learn so much by editing Wikipedia and reading about these people. By looking at where people work, you have a chance to see where in the world a particular area of work is happening. You might learn where is a really hot place to go and study a particular topic, or a new kind of experiment that you’ve never tried before. So from a science perspective, it’s been absolutely incredible.

TT: What has been your favourite part about writing these entries?

JW: I think that putting together stories of people who’ve been historically overlooked is genuinely exciting. There was one entry I made this week about a woman called June Lindsey, who was a crystallographer in Cambridge in the 1940s. She was there at the time when Rosalind Franklin and Crick and Watson were and they were all trying to uncover the structure of DNA. This woman June Lindsey was incredible. She discovered the crystalline structures of two base units of DNA, and she also predicted the type of chemical bonds that hold the DNA together. Then Crick and Watson saw her designs, saw her predictions, saw her structures, and 48 hours later, using that information, wrote this paper and then went on to get the Nobel Prize... without acknowledging her at all.

June Lindsey, bottom left, at Cavendish Laboratory. (Courtesy of June Lindsey)

June Lindsey, bottom left, at Cavendish Laboratory. (Courtesy of June Lindsey)

TT: Do you have a favourite entry?

JW: My favourite entry is one about Gladys West, an African American woman who was born in the 1930s, studied maths at university and went to work for the U.S. government. She was involved really early on with the development of GPS technology. She wrote the codes for all of the satellites. When you look at the early documents, you can see her name everywhere. Since I made her Wikipedia page, she’s been nominated twice by the BBC to their top 100 Women list and she’s also been inducted into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame

TT: How can our readers get involved with creating these pages?

JW: If anyone is reading this wants to get involved with Wikipedia, make an account, look at the pages that you like the structure of and then try and put together the same for the person you want to write about. The Wikipedia Education and the Wikipedia Foundation have great guidance to help you make your first edits.

There are rules about who and what can be put on Wikipedia. People, things and places have to be “notable” to warrant their space on the site. When you’re writing on Wikipedia, it’s just like in a literature review: when you make a statement, you need to cite a source. These can be academic websites, trustworthy national newspapers, awarding bodies or learned societies. Obviously you can’t cite things like someone’s social media or LinkedIn. You can’t cite blogs or interviews because they could have said anything about themselves — and not necessarily have told the truth. You should try to find independent, reliable, secondary sources.

That’s often a big challenge for women, particularly women of colour, because they don’t get the coverage that their white male colleagues get. Often, if there’s been a big science discovery, even if a woman of colour has been really crucial and integral to that research, it will be a white man who will feature in the news. That’s the really difficult thing when you put together these pages. For most big prizes, irrespective of whoever the scientists were who did the work, the majority of the accolades go to the white guy who led the team.

Gladys West helped to develop the mathematics behind GPS. (Courtesy of BBC)

Gladys West helped to develop the mathematics behind GPS. (Courtesy of BBC)

TT: What types of contributions can our readers make, in addition to creating new pages?
JW: Awesome, thanks Assembly readers! If you are using Wikipedia and you recognise that something is wrong, you have the power to correct it. If something you know very well isn’t well documented, then you can improve it. If you meet a phenomenal woman or person of colour – or see them on television or hear them on the radio — you can tell their story. If you make a small edit to Wikipedia, it could be viewed by millions of people within the first few days that you make it. 

I think we all have a responsibility to make Wikipedia better. It is genuinely the most phenomenal platform to improve access to free accurate information for billions of people around the world. As we all use it so often, we all have a responsibility to make it better. 

If you speak more than one language that’s particularly awesome because you can translate pages about women scientists and engineers from English into your native language, or from your native language into English. That’s a super important thing to do because often the coverage about science topics and scientists on smaller language Wikipedias isn’t as good. So, if you speak another language, then you are super important to the whole project. It will work best if everyone in the world contributes knowledge that they have, because everyone knows at least one small fact that no one else does, so we can all add to this and add to this global collection of knowledge.

TT: What advice do you have for girls who are looking to break into the field of science, but experience barriers or have doubts about their abilities?

JW: Try and recognise that the doubts you might be feeling about your own ability are absolutely nothing to do with you. They’re because of the society that you are living in and the way that it’s making you feel. So many incredibly successful and impressive women scientists and engineers have felt exactly the same thing you do now and have achieved amazing things. You might not know their names, but they’re all around you, writing computer code, designing new medications and creating renewable energy sources. The other thing is to find that one way you want to change the world and don’t stop until you can do it. Because no one else is going to do it, and actually, right now, so many of us are relying on you. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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about the author

Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.