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How to Edit Wikipedia: Lessons from a Female Contributor

by Dawn Leonard Tripp


So you’re a woman, and you want to edit on Wikipedia? Here’s why you should and how you can help to close its gender gap.

Wikipedia needs women editors. Badly. Wikipedia’s editorial body is 85-90% male, and although most of the editors are nice people, bullies and trolls lurk in the pages of the popular online encyclopedia.

The dearth of women’s voices on Wikipedia means that its readers are informed by a colossal, electronic Cyclops. To be fair, much of the gender bias on Wikipedia is probably unconscious and not the result of an army of misogynists plotting to set civilization back 100 years. Nonetheless, the crowd-sourced resource needs input from a diverse pool of editors if it wants to be factual and unbiased.

How can you help close Wikipedia’s gender gap and improve the site as a reliable online reference? In this how-to article, I share tips based on my first-hand experience of editing Wikipedia while female.

Create an Account

Before you create a Wikipedia account, create a new email account that you will use only for Wikipedia business. If you have your own domain name, do not create your new email there. Use Gmail or Yahoo! Mail. When you create this unique email account, do not use your real name or any variation of it for your email user name. Give as little personal information as possible. Do not set up a “profile.” Be sure to set your security settings as high as possible.

Think of a unique username for your Wikipedia account:

  • Do not use your real name.

  • Do not use a username that you use anywhere else, or a variation on a name you use elsewhere.

  • Do not use obviously feminine names, such as SuzyQ or Pam I Am.

  • Do not use feminine titles like Miss, Ms, or Mrs.

  • Do not incorporate hobbies, interests, family status, religious affiliation, etc. For example, Knit Nut, Fairly Feminist, and Lovemykids are not the best usernames if you want to avoid Wikipedia gender-based harassment.

Read the Policies

Before editing anything, read Contributing to Wikipedia, especially the Wikipedia community, standards and principles. But note that, despite a civility policy on Wikipedia, some editors think that expecting civil language in discussions is censorship. Indeed, there is a no censorship policy on Wikipedia, but it applies to the encyclopedia’s content, not its editors’ behavior.

Read the Neutral point of view (NPOV) policy. Also, try to get a feel for the difference between Wikipedia policies, guidelines, and essays. This can be tricky, but some editors are ignorant of the difference, or they know the difference and misleadingly cite essays as policy, and vice versa, to greener colleagues.

Start Editing

Begin contributing! However, resist the urge to make your first edits on your favorite subjects. For instance, do you have a strong interest in gaming or tech articles? Do not start with those subjects. Are you the victim of domestic violence? Do not start with that subject. As you go through the learning process, choose topics about which you have no strong feelings. Then, if you stumble (as a contributor, not just a female one), your emotions won’t be tied up in the responses you receive.

Before you edit, look at the top of your screen and make sure you are logged in. This is the most important step of any Wikipedia editing session. If you realize that you have edited without logging in (meaning that you have revealed your IP address), email the Oversight team ASAP and they will help you quickly.

If another editor reverts an edit you make, read his (odds are the editor is a he) edit summary to see whether he started a discussion on the article’s talk page or on your talk page.

Edit summaries are one of the most powerful weapons in the Wikipedia bully’s arsenal. Edit summaries are supposed to be civil and about content, but bully editors abuse them. Occasionally, even a good editor makes an exasperated edit summary when angry, tired, or sick. Provided that such summaries are not egregious, you are best to ignore them. But if they are egregious or repeated, you have every right to complain.

A friendly or neutral-sounding edit summary (look for the words “good faith” or “AGF”) indicates you can safely proceed to discuss the revert. However, if the edit summary uses “you” or “your” aggressively; Wikipedia jargon (that an experienced editor knows a new user would not understand); or obvious insults (often in the form of questions such as, “Are you kidding me?”), it is time to disengage and decide what to do next.

If you thrive (or at least know how to survive) in such a situation, read up on the consensus-building process and go for it. However, if you feel uneasy, either abandon that article and move on to another, or seek help at the Wikipedia Teahouse.

After editing for a month or making 100 or more article (or “mainspace”) edits, consider working on topics that you are more interested in – with a couple of caveats.

  • If you are the subject of a biography, or related to the living subject of a biography, read the Biography of a living person (BLP) policy. You are allowed to edit such articles, but you should disclose who you are and prepare to be scrutinized.

  • If you are being compensated for editing Wikipedia, or if you or your employer could personally benefit from your editing, read the Conflict of interest (COI) guideline.

Every Wikipedia editor has biases. Do not let anyone bully you into leaving a subject simply because you are passionate and persistent about it. For example, don’t be deterred by allegations such as, “You are too emotional to edit this,” or “You are pushing a POV.” The only time biases are problematic is when an editor edits contrary to the NPOV policy.

Help Decrease the Gender Gap

Log on to Facebook and “like” the WikiWomen’s Collaborative. Follow @WikiWomen on Twitter. Perhaps join the Wikipedia Gender Gap Task Force (GGTF). The task force has been breached by some editors whose motives for participating are questionable, but not all men on GGTF are thugs, just as not all women there are friends. Many rational, civil editors on the task force really do want to discuss and narrow the gender gap. Read the open talk page discussions and archives and get a feel for who is there to improve the project (the content and the editing environment), and who has another agenda.

Beware editors who only want to talk about content; who feel that civility is not a problem on Wikipedia; who dismiss other editors or tell others to ignore problems; and who constantly derail discussions. GGTF scoffers often ask for evidence that there really is a gender gap on Wikipedia, or that people (especially women) have been driven off by the hostile editing environment. The evidence has been presented numerous times in numerous project forums, and new evidence is appearing more frequently. But leave arguing that to the more experienced task-force members.

Perhaps the most important step of all: Spread the word. Invite women colleagues and friends to join you. After years of being edited by primarily young, white, single men, the encyclopedia is not NPOV, and its best hope for being improved is women like you.

Dawn Leonard Tripp is a freelance writer and retired programmer/analyst. She has two granddaughters whom she hopes do whatever fulfills them their whole lives through.