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Who Gets To Be Notable And Who Doesn't: Gender Bias On Wiki

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On Wikipedia, gender inequality is hiding in plain sight. Of more than a million and a half biographies - that's on the English-language version - fewer than 19% are about women. A recent study brings some new insight into why that is. Francesca Tripodi is a sociologist and assistant professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science. She is the author of that study, and she joins us now.

Hey there.

FRANCESCA TRIPODI: Hi, Mary Louise. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So tell us a little bit more - the headlines. What'd you find?

TRIPODI: Well, a lot of people know that less than 19% of biographies on English language Wikipedia are about women, but few people understand the extra hurdles that editors have to jump through in order to get these pages to stick. And what my research finds is that for the last three years, articles about women rose, like, 16% to about 18%. And during that time period, the percentage of articles for deletion about women were always over 25%. Women who meet Wikipedia's criteria for inclusion are just more likely to be considered non-notable and less worthy for inclusion than men.

KELLY: When you were studying the whole process, I saw that you went to what's known as an edit-a-thon (ph). These are events put on...

TRIPODI: Yes.

KELLY: ...By volunteers. Well, just explain. What's the purpose?

TRIPODI: So edit-a-thon events are meetups that are organized by Wikipedia editors in order to improve Wikipedia. And the ones that I specifically went to were organizations that were devoted to improving gender equity on the site. And it was through those edit-a-thons that I was able to speak to editors who were telling me they were really frustrated because these articles that they were spending a lot of time on and they had worked with libraries and the Smithsonian to get the resources they needed to demonstrate that notability - they were telling me, well, it's hard for us because even after we add these people, they get nominated for deletion.

KELLY: It sounds like what you're saying is for the editors of biographies of women, even when they've written something that they feel clearly meets the criteria and it goes up on the site, they then have to watch the page to see, is it going to get flagged? Is it - is somebody going to try to delete this? Am I going to have to defend it so that it doesn't get removed?

TRIPODI: Absolutely. So you have these multi levels of hurdles you have to pass. First, in order for women to establish notability, they first have to be written about in books, covered in the news, featured in galleries. And we already know that's harder for women. But you also have to keep an eye on it because chances are it will be considered non-notable and nominated for deletion. And if nobody's watching out for it, then it will be deleted. It's exhausting. It's a second level of work that, quite frankly, new people or new editors might not want to take on.

KELLY: Let's step back and just - I'd love to hear your thoughts on why this matters. I mean, gender equality is not something we find in all kinds of areas of the world. Why is it so important to study this on Wikipedia?

TRIPODI: I think this matters for a couple of reasons, right? One, it goes beyond just Wikipedia. You know, I think it really complicates our understanding of how women's contributions to society are assessed. I think my study also really calls attention to the limitations of pronoun use. When gender clearly shapes perceived notability, whether explicitly or implicitly, we have to consider the way these his-her dichotomies are maintaining those hierarchies.

And finally, I think it's really important to note that Wikipedia data is also a source for pretty much every device we rely on, right?

KELLY: Yeah.

TRIPODI: So it helps make up Google's knowledge panel. It also teaches AI systems. And so when women go missing from Wikipedia, that absence reverberates throughout the 21st century in pretty much any way we go to learn about something. So discrediting the significance of women subjects holds really wide implications.

KELLY: That was Francesca Tripodi walking us through the findings of her study, which is titled "Ms. Categorized: Gender, Notability And Inequality on Wikipedia."

Thank you.

TRIPODI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.