Activists use Wikipedia to write about marginalized groups in climate science

In 2020, a viral photo taken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland highlighted the enduring invisibility of women of color in the climate movement. Vanessa Nakate, a black Ugandan climate activist, had posed for a photo with other notable climate activists, all white women, only to be later removed from the final version widely shared by The Associated Press.

Like Greta Thunberg, who was also pictured, Nakate had become famous for embarking on her own solitary strike, her own outside Uganda’s parliament to protest climate inaction. She had also founded her own youth climate organization and was invited to speak at COP25, a conference where world leaders come together to discuss climate change. But in an instant, she – along with her climate work – was erased.

“You didn’t just delete a photo,” she later tweeted about the incident. “You erased a continent.”

AP’s editor publicly apologized to Nakate. His image quickly made its way to another major platform: Wikipedia. It was added by Afrocrowd, a non-profit organization that seeks to add more people of African descent to Wikipedia, which remains one of the most visited websites in the world.

While uploading a photo may seem like a small act, it’s part of a larger effort to use Wikipedia’s everyone-edit model to re-enter people into historical and ongoing history. the society. In this way, recognition is given where it is due, changing the way society collectively perceives different identities, professions and regions of the world. This year, digital activists are using it to re-enroll women and LGBTQ+ people in climate work.

“It has an impact on who is recognized as an expert, who is recognized for their achievements, and it is also a passive way of changing the face of science, said Farah Qaiser, who is part of the team of leadership of 500 Women Scientists, a non-profit organization that aims to close the gender gap on the ground and online. “Very often, women and other marginalized scientists are not recognized or overlooked for their achievements. So with Wikipedia editing, we are rewriting women and other marginalized groups into history.

Women represent less than 19% of all biographies on Wikipedia. But in recent years, several digital activist groups have formed to tackle the problem. This year, one such group, Women in Red – made up of a group of editors aiming to turn Wikipedia’s red links, which means there is no active article page, into blue ‘live’ links – focuses its year-long initiative on adding more women to weather-related entries. Collectively, the organizations are reducing the invisibility of women, women of color, and LGTBQ+ people, and they’re doing it one editor, bio, and image at a time.

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, co-founder of Women in Red, a volunteer-run initiative, has been writing for Wikipedia since 2007. Initially, she didn’t focus on gender. She wrote about everything that fascinated her at the time. “I just enjoyed the research and the writing,” she said. “I enjoyed working towards this common goal of the sum of all notable human knowledge.”

But over the years, she’s become more aware of the lack of entries about women. So she began to write them herself – to date she has written more than 1700. This is a task made difficult by the lack of information about many women on the Internet.

“The biographies of men are fruits at hand. There is so much information out there. They are easy to write,” she said. The biographies of women, on the other hand? “There is so much less.”

This information is important because for a biography to be eligible for Wikipedia, it must meet what is called a “notability” criteria. This usually needs to be proven using other citable sources on the internet, things like honors and awards, New York Times obituaries, and news articles.

“Wikipedia can only truly reflect these sources and society as a whole,” Qaiser said. She continued, “It’s easier to sit down and create and edit pages, but dismantle all these larger systemic inequalities? Well, that’s a problem forever.

Re-inscribing women and LGBTQ+ people in history, especially in the climate sphere, is a challenge for reasons outside of the information available on the internet. If Wikipedia is, in its purest form, a reflection of prejudice in society, there’s a whole host of reasons why there aren’t more women or LGBTQ+ climate scientists to begin with.

Vanessa Nakate shouts into a megaphone during a protest.
Climate activist Vanessa Nakate attends a protest in June 2022 in Stockholm, Sweden.
(Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

“The systemic inequalities that exist around the world also impact who even qualifies and meets the criteria for notability,” Qaiser said.

For example, a 2019 gender bias survey conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global consortium that produces climate assessments authored by hundreds of scientists, found that more a third of respondents said they felt male perpetrators dominated. discussions within their working groups. Additionally, 38% of women said they had seen someone else take credit for a woman’s idea, and nearly twice as many women as men cited custody responsibilities. children as an obstacle to their participation in the IPCC.

Worldwide, only 30 percent of science researchers are women, according to UNESCO, and when women successfully rise through the ranks, their contributions to science gets less credit than men, and they are less likely to be nominated for awards than men. Other studies have shown that women are also less likely to be quoted than men in science reporting.

All of these factors play a role in who meets the website notoriety criteria. That’s why Qaiser, who has organized more than a dozen events known as edit-a-thons, which aim to bring together new and returning editors to add women and LGBTQ+ biographies to Wikipedia. , co-wrote a column in Nature in May listing ways in which academic institutions could help combat gender bias on Wikipedia. The article suggested asking university media departments to write more stories about women’s achievements, which could provide some of the factual weight needed to bolster a notoriety argument, and asking institutions to provide photos. that can be used on Wikipedia.

“If we’re going to write these biographies, we can’t write them if the company doesn’t provide us with content,” Stephenson-Goodnight said.

Even then, it is not always enough. Commonly, Donna Strickland, a Canadian physicist, had her biography nominated for deletion by an editor years earlier for failing to meet the notability requirement. After a user submitted a new biography, that submission was also rejected. A few months later, she won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

She was already the past president of the Optical Society (now Optica), a leading scientific organization, among other honors that would be called “notable,” Stephenson-Goodnight said. “If Donna Strickland had been a 59-year-old man, instead of a 59-year-old woman, her biography when it was first written…would it have been promoted on Wikipedia?” she says. “We’ll never know.”

Professor Dr Donna Strickland smiles as she points to instruments in her lab.
Professor Donna Strickland shows instruments in her lab following a press conference to answer questions about her Nobel Prize in Physics in October 2018 in Waterloo, Canada.
(Cole Burston/Getty Images)

A study published last year found that biographies of women were more often nominated for removal than biographies written about men. (Most of Wikipedia is written and edited by men – they make up about 85% of contributors.)

Among the biographies of women who successfully pass the gauntlet of suppression, many do not have images. Only 20% of pictures that include people, found on Wikimedia Commons, represent women, said Mariana Fossatti, Wikipedia’s decolonization coordinator for the global nonprofit Whose Knowledge. The organization focuses on building online representation of marginalized communities, which Fossatti says make up the majority of the world’s population.

Fossatti, who is based in Uruguay, said increased representation on Wikipedia also increased visibility on other content providers like Google, which pulls from the site. “So if you have inequality and a colonial perspective biasing Wikipedia, that bias spills over to the internet.”

Currently, Wikipedia is heavily skewed towards Western thought and history, as the majority of editors are white males based in the North, she said. “We know that knowledge is based on the long history of colonization.”

This underscores the importance of Nakate’s case, Fossatti said. His deletion of this photo taken at the World Economic Forum “is a symptom of what is happening with climate change [work]”, said Fossatti, “[where] the black and brown youth of the Global South are unknown or invisible.

But unlike historical records of the past, Wikipedia has the potential to be more inclusive and reflective of society.

“If people can find a representation of say a nurse or a librarian or a doctor or a software engineer and that person, that face, is a woman, or a Latin American woman, for example, it makes a big difference,” Fossatti said.

About Julius Southworth

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