In 2011, the New York Times published a story on the gender gap on Wikipedia. A survey indicated that something like 87% of Wikipedia editors were men, despite the fact that men and women read Wikipedia in relatively equal numbers. Some in the sciences raised concerns that women scientists were being neglected on the website. The articles of women scientists were less substantial, less meticulously-cited, and failed to meet Wikipedia’s good article criteria. Despite recent efforts like the 2013 Ada Lovelace Edit-a-thon and the Royal Society Edit-a-thon, the Wikipedia articles of female scientists still bear the marks of this gender gap. Even as larger inequalities are slowly corrected, seemingly-inconsequential details reveal a troublingly gendered treatment of women scientists on Wikipedia.
Take, for example, the case of Rosalind Franklin. Her early and mostly-unacknowledged contributions to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA helped James Watson and Francis Crick create their DNA model, an achievement that won the two men a Nobel Prize in 1962. In the scientific community Franklin’s reputation has been (mostly) rehabilitated to correct this slight, and her Wikipedia entry addresses this controversy in a reasonably frank and detailed way. However, a look at Franklin’s “Talk” page hints at less obvious problems. In October of 2013, a user noted that “the article focuses more on her family and activities than on Franklin’s life itself. If you compare this to someone like Francis Crick…Franklin’s early life [section] is severely lacking in information about her.” And it’s true—the section of Franklin’s article on her early life and education is twelve sentences long, fewer than half of which are about Franklin herself. Mostly the reader learns that her father taught at the Working Man’s College, her uncle held a political position in the British Mandate of Palestine, and another uncle literally whipped Winston Churchill. While the latter is an interesting tidbit, it doesn’t tell us much about Franklin, and defining her by the achievements of her male relatives is a poor start to any description of Franklin’s life and work.
I’d also suggest that the names we use to talk about these women matter just as much as some of the big picture issues of Wikipedia editing. In July of 2013, an anonymous user on Franklin’s “Talk” page pointed out that in reference to the TV movie Life Story, the article referred to male characters by their first and last name (James Watson, Francis Crick, etc.) but called Franklin “Rosalind.” The user says, “The use of a first name alone to refer to a historical figure should be reserved for situations where that is necessary or appropriate.” In this case, use of their full names conferred respect and authority to the male scientists, and the casual familiarity of using just Franklin’s first name subtly dismantled her scientific credibility. Similar issues appear on the Wikipedia page history of Esther Lederberg, a microbiologist who discovered specialized transduction in the virus lambda phage and developed laboratory procedures like replica plating that changed the practice of genetics. In 2008, user DGG pointed out, “When not using the full name in a formal context, her name… is Lederberg, or E. Lederberg. It is not Esther, which would strike many people as sexist condescension.” Like Franklin, Lederberg’s authority was undercut by the use of her first name only. You wouldn’t catch anyone referring to Francis Crick as “Francis” in his Wikipedia article.
Lederberg’s Wikipedia article also contains some out-of-place trivialities that, combined with the less-than-robust nature of the rest of the entry, encourage the reader to take her less seriously as a scientist. The section “Other interests” discusses Lederberg’s love of Gilbert & Sullivan and her dislike of Michael Crichton’s pop-science fiction. The information is cited and probably true, but what relevance does it have for Lederberg’s career and legacy? The article for Lederberg’s husband and fellow scientist Joshua Lederberg contains no such fluff—it is carefully curated and clear. I’m not saying we should forget that women scientists were people with interests, but nobody is talking about how Niels Bohr liked to dance the foxtrot. The inclusion of such information in Lederberg’s Wikipedia article trivializes her work.
In the larger conversation about gender bias in Wikipedia articles, these issues—first names, Gilbert & Sullivan, an uncle who beat up Winston Churchill—may seem like nit-picks. Really, they’re emblematic of how deep the gender gap runs, how pervasive our use of gendered words and conventions is, and how elusive Wikipedia’s standard of neutral POV continues to be when it comes to the entries of women scientists.