When Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, women couldn’t vote, couldn’t graduate from prestigious universities and weren’t allowed to become Fellows of Learned Societies. When Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the Nobel 1963, she wasn’t being paid for her scientific research, and the headline in the local paper that announced her success read “Mother Wins Nobel Prize”. On Tuesday, “laser jock” Donna Strickland became the third woman to win the Nobel Prize for physics. A day later, Frances Arnold won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.
Despite Strickland’s historic achievement, her biography was conspicuously absent from the world’s fifth most popular website – Wikipedia. Her absence was not a mere oversight, but the product of systemic gender bias in the sciences, which trickles down to the encyclopaedia meant to provide “free access to the sum of all human knowledge”. Wikipedia content isn’t the product of academic researchers, but rather the contribution of a workforce of international volunteers committed to democratising access to knowledge. But while anyone is free to contribute to the encyclopaedia, men make up between 80 and 90 per cent of editors. Research has shown that workspaces dominated by men are subject to higher rates of gender discrimination and harassment, whether the result of implicit bias or animus.
Someone had created a page for Strickland, which was subsequently flagged for deletion and removed from the encyclopaedia. The entry was determined not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirements, which require a scientist is widely published, has received media attention, and has won significant prizes. All three of these criteria, however, are biased in favour of men. Wikipedia doesn’t have to replicate the biases that exist in scientific institutions.
Until the last century, the majority of scientific research was conducted by men precisely because women were either actively excluded or made to feel unwelcome. Despite more diverse departments being more productive, physics and computer science has been particularly slow to wake up — with some disciplines moving at a glacial pace. Women make up only 14 per cent of physics professors and 15 per cent of computer science tenure-track faculty. Societal stereotypes still make women feel intellectually inferior to men, even at senior levels. These stereotypes aren’t based on biological fact but a litany of dodgy neuroscience and psychology.
Nevertheless, women throughout history have played a vital yet often unsung role in advancing science—from Ada Lovelace’s algorithms that advanced the field of computation to mathematician Gladys West’s early codes that paved the way for GPS technologies. If we want science to look more like us and better represent the people of the world, we have a responsibility to tell their stories—and Wikipedia is a great place to start.
Like academic science, Wikipedia is self-correcting and always updating. But unlike academic science, the barrier to entry for Wikipedia is low. All it takes is the will to edit, access to the internet, and some friends to help along the way. If we can inspire enough editors to take to Wikipedia and fill in the gaps forged by gender bias, we will improve our scientific record, celebrate the outstanding science done by scientists from underrepresented groups and, maybe, inspire a new generation of girls in science who can find stories of girls just like them who grew up to do discover incredible things. So we’re choosing to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day by hosting Wikipedia edit-a-thons around the globe, whether you’re in London, Manchester, Madrid, Montreal, Washington, DC, or Atlanta.
These edit-a-thons matter and can have tremendous impact. In the course of a June afternoon, a single edit-a-thon hosted by 500 Women Scientists NYC made over 300 edits, which have since been viewed 600,000 times. While we may not be able to overhaul our institutions overnight, we do have the power to come together for an afternoon to create and edit articles for more women and underrepresented groups in STEM fields. As scientists, we have access to scientific understanding and the expertise to translate them for public consumption. As women, underrepresented minorities, and allies, we have the mindset to right inequities and ensure all scientists have the opportunity to be acknowledged and celebrated for their work.
While we may not be able to overhaul our institutions overnight, we can work to change the traditional narrative of who has done and who can do science. We do have the power to help more people see themselves in science – and on Wikipedia. We don’t have to wait for the next woman to win a Nobel Prize to share her achievements with the world.
Maryam Zaringhalam is an AAAS science and technology policy fellow in Washington DC, and she is a member of 500 Women Scientists. Jess Wade is a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London who works on organic light-emitting diodes and sensors. Together they are campaigning to get a copy of Angela Saini’s book about how science got women wrong, Inferior, in every public school library in New York City.
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