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Wikipedia’s Sexist Turn: Men Are Novelists, Women Are ‘Women Novelists’

The latest Wikipedia flap is a reminder that sub-categorizing by minority creates implicit bias.
 
 
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At 5:44 PM on April 1, John Pack Lambert, a 32-year-old student of history at Wayne State University took a small step for one man which proved to be a giant leap for mankind.

And I mean MANkind, not humanity.

Lambert moved Patricia Aakhus, author of The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Curragh from American novelists to the category American women novelists.

Two minutes later, teen romance author Hailey Abbott suffered the same fate.

Then Megan Abbott.

At 8:51 PM Lambert, the one-man army to engender order in the universe, created a new category, Nigerian women novelists and put Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie there.

James Gleick’s account in the New York Review of Books of how Wikipedia fell into the great gender gap is a riveting read, a sort of detective story for category-geeks. (Read the full story here).

The next day Lambert was briefly sidetracked by a discussion of whether there should be a Category:Jeans enthusiasts (for “celebrities and famous people who are always wearing or frequently spotted wearing jeans”), but then he got back to work and A. L. Kennedy, till then a Scottish novelist, became a Scottish woman novelist. On April 3 he created a category for Greek women screenwriters; so far it has only one member.

The rest of the world cried “Sexism.” Leading the charge was Amanda Filipacci, one of the women writers who suddenly found herself banished to the ante-chamber while the men hogged the living room. (Sounds like an old-fashioned Indian wedding.)

Filipacci complained in a post on The New York Times:

People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of “American Novelists” for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women. They might simply use that list without thinking twice about it. It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.

Even Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales was gobsmacked. In a post titled WTH, he wrote:

My first instinct is that surely these stories are wrong in some important way. Can someone update me on where I can read the community conversation about this? Did it happen? How did it happen?

Lambert stoutly defended himself to Gleick. “This whole hullabaloo is really missing the point,” he said. “The people who are making a big deal about this are not being up-front about what happens if we do not diffuse categories.”

Diffuse is geek-speak for moving things from a parent category to a sub-category. American novelist, said Lambert was just too big to be useful. “It is really a holding ground for people who have yet to be categorized into a more specific sub-cat,” said a user called Obi-Wan Kenobi. “It’s not some sort of club that you have to be a part of.”

May the force be with Obi-Wan Kenobi but really? If that’s the case why not move the men out to Male American novelists? There was a proposal to do that. It got shot down fast. That is our problem in a nutshell. We categorize by minority and therefore it’s hard to escape bias.

So after The New York Review of Books (again!) scooped all the big pubs by  tracking down the mysterious Misha, the so-called Svengali alleged to have “radicalized” the brothers Tsarnaev, many commenters complained that he was described as half-Armenian. Why not describe him as half-Ukrainian complained angry readers, probably Armenians.

On the flip side, Indian American publications routinely complain that Kamala Harris is described as California’s first African American Attorney General when she is also its first Indian-American Attorney General.

But Wikipedia’s women problem is different. It’s not about the clumsiness of describing Kamala Harris as California’s first female African American Indian American attorney general. Like much of the online world Wikipedia has a gender gap. But as it has become the default go-to site for information, its gender gap is showing in embarrassing ways.

In 2011, Noam Cohen  wrote in The New York Times that the contributor base was barely 13 percent women. That means there’s gender bias that shows up in the very act of deciding what topic is worthy of meriting a wiki entry and how long it is.

A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

For example, during the royal wedding in 2011, Wikipedia members debated furiously about whether Kate Middleton’s dress deserved an entry. Wiki founder Wales thought it did because it had more social and cultural interest than “100 articles on different Linux distributions, some of them quite obscure… and (they have) virtually no impact on the broader culture.”

Well intentioned, I am sure. But a problematic example to use to try and fix a real gender problem. As one reader  said at that time:

“I really see this idea that keeping this article does something to remedy the gender imbalance here to be facile at best and insulting at worst.”

Pardon me, Wiki, but your slip is showing.

It’s a knotty problem that goes beyond one OCD history student. How do you create categories without creating hierarchies? Especially given the fact that a “gay writer” is happy to claim a Lambda award given out for LGBT writing and a woman politician is grateful for support that comes her way thanks to a group like Emily’s List which wants to encourage women in politics. But neither want those honours to disqualify them from being “writer” or “politician.”

The problem is not one of the categories you belong to but the ones you don’t – this idea that somehow a woman American writer is not an American writer as well.

So in the world according to Wikipedia Maya Angelou belongs to 20th century women writers, African-American memoirists, African-American women poets, African American writers, American Activists, American dramatists and playwrights, American people of Sierre Leonean descent – everything but 20th century writer.

But the first categories Salman Rushdie belongs to are 20th century novelists and 21st century novelists.

Until Wikipedia understands that the difference between the two entries is not just one of ordering but of perspective, it’s doomed to keep falling face first into the gender gap.

 
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