Deleting Women

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Let’s start with some statistics:

  • 18% of biographical entries on Wikipedia are about women

  • Less than 15% of active Wikipedia contributors/editors are women

  • Nearly 80% of Wikipedia's woman biographies are stubs

  • At the current rate, women biographies will be equal to men in 2034

  • 70,000 notable women do not have Wikipedia entries

  • Women Wikipedia biographies are 2.5 times more likely to be deleted than men

In 2019, during Black History Month and on International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Wikipedia biography of black nuclear scientist Clarice Phelps was deleted. Phelps has been credited with being the first African-American woman to help discover a chemical element. She was a member of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory team that discovered tennessine. As Claire Jarvis commented: “The optics weren’t good.”

Phelps’ biography was deleted by an anonymous editor because she was not notable and because additional outside references were needed. Journalist Claire Jarvis notes:

Anyone can flag a Wikipedia page for any reason. They don’t need to reveal their identity or know anything about the content of the page they flag. The anonymity fuels trollish impulses.

When the entry was flagged for deletion, contributors added a dozen citations, but the entry was still removed.

Jarvis notes that the entry for James Harris, the first African-American male scientist to contribute to the discovery of a new element suffers from the same defects, yet it has not been deleted in the four years since it was posted. Instead, an editor warns: “This article needs additional citations for verification.”

Jessica Wade, the writer of Phelps’ Wikipedia entry notes: “When you make a page and it is disputed for deletion, it is not only annoying because your work is being deleted, it’s also incredibly intrusive and degrading to have someone discuss whether someone’s notable enough to be on Wikipedia – a website that has pages about almost every pop song, people who are extras in films no one has ever heard of and people who were in sports teams that never scored.”

“If it’s not on Wikipedia it doesn’t exist. These women need to be written back into history.”

In February 202, Phelps' Wikipedia entry was reinstated.

Due to the efforts of organizations like Women in Red, women's presence on Wikipedia, has increased by three percent over the last four years. Also, organizations hold edit-a-thons to increase women’s Wikipedia profiles. Such advocates are necessary to ensure that women’s history is not ignored. Emily Temple-Wood is Wikipedia editor who writes biographies of woman scientists. She is committed to the project because “if it’s not on Wikipedia it doesn’t exist. These women need to be written back into history.”

With this in mind, I recently edited the Wikipedia entry for Blair Niles to provide more depth and references. I plan to do this with each of the members of the Society of Woman Geographers highlighted in my forthcoming book, The Girl Explorers. Let’s see if it gets redacted.

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