Wikipedia edit-a-thons are playing a key role in improving the gender imbalance in the arts and culture sector, ensuring notable women are fairly represented online.
Edit-a-thons – collaborations between cultural organisations and the Wikimedia movement – involve groups working together to improve the site’s coverage of different topics.
Jason Evans, a national wikimedian for the National Library of Wales, helps facilitate such events, which are also regarded as a way of increasing engagement and training new editors. “The more people that contribute to Wikipedia, the better it becomes,” he says.
Only 17% of Wikipedia biographies are about women, so addressing this is important. “I think people suspect there’s an imbalance, but when you quote the figures, it usually causes quite a shock,” says Evans. “There are lots of gasps from the audience when you spell it out like that.”
The hope is that edit-a-thons empower participants to continue editing, and to encourage others to do so.
They have also led to new or improved articles being made on the day. “There’s something magical about being able to write and publish an article from scratch in one session,” says Evans. “It feels like something tangible that you can point people to.”
Seeing people continue to edit has been a highlight for Jenny Baker, a senior research officer in engineering at Swansea University, who has collaborated with Evans on two Welsh Women Wiki Edit-a-thons aimed at raising the visibility of inspiring women. While maintaining a factual style of writing was an initial challenge, the edit-a-thons proved to be rewarding experiences and have had an impact on gender imbalances in the arts.
“It has been changing – there has been a concerted effort,” says Baker. The Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, East Sussex, struggled to find information for a show on female craft practitioners between the two world wars.
“We decided to incorporate a ‘roll of honour’ where visitors could nominate craftswomen who deserved a higher profile,” says Stephanie Fuller, the director of Ditchling Museum. The organisation chose Wikipedia as an accessible way of sharing the research, and building on it.
“We held two free training sessions, as well as one for staff, for anyone who wanted to learn to be a Wikipedia editor,” says Fuller. “As we gained confidence we drafted new biographies from scratch, putting new information out there.”
Virginia Treanor, an associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), in Washington DC, has also seen change happening. “Women’s contributions weren’t valued for so long,” she says. “We have collections, the bulk of which were formed in the 19th or early 20th centuries, and the emphasis was always on male artists. It becomes entrenched and takes time to break down.”
Also host to Wikipedia edit-a-thons, the NMWA’s aim is to champion women in the arts and to address the gender imbalance by spotlighting women artists, past and present.
“For the average visitor, the imbalance probably isn’t something they’ve stopped to think about before they walk in the door,” says Treanor. “After they leave, they might find themselves making note as they go into other museums about whether there are works by women on display.”
According to the museum, 51% of today’s visual artists are women. However, taking London as an example, 78% of galleries represent more men than women, with only one in 20 representing male and female artists equally.
To combat this, museums are actively collecting works by women artists. Half the rooms in the Tate’s Natalie Bell Building are devoted solely to female artists, while another room – Feminism and Media – looks at how gender stereotypes in the media have been confronted by feminist artists over the past 50 years.
Increasing the representation of female artists online has been long overdue, so organising an edit-a-thon should be on every cultural institution’s radar.
Catherine Kennedy is a freelance writer