"The first engineer who was not also a man" – a report from the Writing cottage on Ada Lovelace DayEdit
This is a guest post from Pernilla Alexandersson, the Operations manager at Add Gender and a chairman of the trade organization Gender Entrepreneurs in Sweden.
The mood was high and the conversation passed in waves across the table when I entered an airy conference room at the Solidarity House in Stockholm, Sweden. A group of people was participating in the "Writing cottage on Ada Lovelace Day," which took place on Wednesday, October 16. That day I learned that on the Swedish Wikipedia, there are four men for every woman who edits Wikipedia. While this gap is slowly decreasing, it takes a lot of work to change it.
As I expanded an article that another woman on the other side of the table just created in Swedish--about Yahoo!'s president Marissa Mayer--my brain creaked with effort, in a good way. Then I fe;t it: the wings of history, and when the article was updated, I was so proud! Despite its small mistakes, I was reassured by the the understanding that someone else will take over, perhaps more experienced than me, and expand the article! That's the beauty of Wikipedia.
Among the many discussions we had as we edited, as a gender expert I was particularly interested in questions of the use of the Swedish terms "masculine" and "feminine." In the English Wikipedia article for Mayer, it says she was Google's "first female engineer." How should I best translate that? In Swedish, we don’t have the perfect word for “female"; in Swedish "hona" refers to animals. So should I translate it as “A woman and an engineer?” or “Feminine engineer?” Is it even important to have this debate? Would anyone write “the first male engineer" for Google's first employed engineer? Of course not. It is historically significant when the first woman enters a previously male dominated area – and there's the context!
In the categories for Wikipedia articles, it seems that the Swedish Wikipedia has solved the problem well: you can search for people by category:women or category:men. In English, "Mathematician" is generally about the mathematician, and there is a special subcategory on "Women in mathematics." Not at all an optimal solution where women are anomalous and a subcategory of the implied main category: men.
As for the article in question, I strongly opposed the use of the Swedish “feminine" as an alternative to the English “female”. I sought advice in the Wikipedia style guide that evening, and I turned the whole article upside down and felt very proud when I came up with a nifty solution: "the first engineer who was also not a man." This made me wonder how Wikipedians had written about men earlier. Do men get their personal life pointed out in their stories? Does anyone have the honor of being named as the "first man" in a given field? If you search for this in the Swedish Wikipedia, the result is striking. Over 800 hits for the phrase the "first woman" and a paltry 24 hits for the "first male."
When men are the first to do something, is it not notable or interesting? Or the areas where women were first, are these the ones worth noting?
Our notions of gender and norms are extremely difficult to see without an outside perspective. Does Wikipedia's accuracy suffer from the skewed gender distribution among its editors? There are many men who are editing, do they realize that they and society are more familiar with a canon consisting of men and therefore are unreflective about the gender dimension? Do they think about their motivations for selecting what items they translate, create or expand?
I think it's good that we focus on the Wikipedia gender gap and try to improve it with initiatives like the events organized around Ada Lovelace Day. They increase awareness among Wikipedia editors of their own gender blindness related to what is important on Wikipedia. Our event was a success in numbers: we created or expanded over 20 articles, and I have now made myself a user name. It was also important because it encouraged interesting and instructive discussions.
For example, on the talk page about our project on Wikipedia, someone argued that it is problematic to say that women are “underrepresented," that more men have meant something to the world’s history and that Wikipedia should be “gender neutral.” Clearly uneven historical narratives do not mean that women are less important to history, nor should Wikipedians be comfortable with this situation. We need to be a modern and knowledgeable group of contributors!
Alas, the morning after the event, I saw that the sentence that I edited, “the first engineer who was not also not a man" was changed back to "feminine engineer." I immediately felt the desire to argue my case, which you can follow on the talk page of the Marissa Mayer article. We debated the issue and made further edits, finally coming up with a pretty good solution: "In 1999, Mayer was first woman to gain employment as an engineer at Google."
I suppose only by continuing to edit and debate these issues will we decrease the gender gap on Wikipedia.
Pernilla Alexandersson, Gender Equality Expert, B.A. in Gender Studies and now Wikipedian: Pernillamia
If we return to the text again, I argue fervently against the use of the Swedish “feminine" as an alternative to the English “female”. I seek advice in the manual during the evening, I turn the whole article upside down and feel very proud when I come up with a nifty solution: "the first engineer who was also not a man." This makes me wonder how Wikipedians have written about men earlier. Do men get their personal life pointed out in their stories? Does anyone have the honor of being named as the "first man"? If you search for this in the Swedish Wikipedia, the result is striking. Over 800 hits on the "first woman" and a paltry 24 hits on the "first male".
When men are the first – is it not interesting? Or the areas where women where first – are they not interesting?
On the way home, after having stayed much later than I had imagined, I think about gender and Wikipedia. Gender is about our notions of gender and norms and this is extremely difficult to see without an outside perspective. Is it accurate that it has become such a skewed gender distribution? There are many men who are editing, do they realize that they and society are more familiar with a canon consisting of men and therefore are unreflective about the gender dimension? Do they reflect on what items they translate, create or expand? It's good that this kind of initiative is taken and that they are the very people who are knowledgeable in editing: To increase awareness of their own gender blindness on what is important to document on Wikipedia. The event was a success! Not only have more people learned how to edit, but we also had interesting and instructive discussions. The result was over 20 new articles or expanded articles and, of course, I have now made myself a user name as well. It will be fun to hang around!
The morning after, I was struck, however, that it was not so easy. The sentence that I edited, “the first engineer who was not also not a man" is now changed again to "feminine engineer". I sigh loudly, but immediately feel the desire to argue the case. Please follow the discussion on the Marissa Mayer article. The editing continues and now the discussion has come up with a pretty good solution.
The discussion about our project at Wikipedia is at the same moment disappointing. In the discussion someone points out that it is problematic to say that women are “underrepresented”. That more men have meant something to the world’s history and that Wikipedia should be “gender neutral”. I do not know where to begin to unravel this? An uneven historical retelling and narratives influences us. And Wikipedians need to be such a modern and knowledgeable group that we can accept this fact - and contribute!
Creating new Wikipedia articles, or updating existing ones, is a task that requires a lot of effort. Every little step counts, and even with community help, it can be a lot of work. Writing an encyclopedia also takes a certain type of writing style, and sometimes it is hard to achieve the desired quality of writing. As a Wikipedia editor, one also should be aware of policies about conflict of interest, sources, and reference materials, and one should expect the criticism that may come with contributing.