'With my laptop and enthusiasm': This physicist is adding hundreds of women scientists to Wikipedia

Only 17 per cent of biographies on Wikipedia are about women. Physicist Jessica Wade wants to change that, so she has added nearly 300 biographies about women scientists and engineers — with more to come.

Only 17 per cent of biographies on the crowdsourced encyclopedia are about women

Jessica Wade has added nearly 300 biographies of women and people of colour to Wikipedia. (Imperial College London)
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Of the 1.5 million biographies on English Wikipedia, fewer than one-fifth are about women.

Jessica Wade, a physicist, isn't happy about that.

"It's definitely not reflective of what I see working in science," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "I figured I can change that, and I can change that just with my laptop and enthusiasm."

Wade, who works in the Blackett Laboratory at Imperial College in London, has written 280 Wikipedia entries about women and people of colour — scientists and engineers in particular.

The effort is part of a movement to not only better represent women on the website — the fifth most visited site in the world — but also increase the number of women scientists online.

On Wikipedia, only 17 per cent of biographies are about women, according to the Wikimedia Foundation.

That's a problem, says Wade, because as more and more people flock to the service for information, they're missing out on key figures.

"It's always men's names that you hear, and that's because for so long we've forgotten to acknowledge the contributions for women — and I think it's time to change that," she said.

The 'Keilana' effect

The lack of women represented on Wikipedia isn't the only issue; existing entries about women aren't of great quality either, Wade says.

Two projects were created to tackle the problem. The first, Women in Red, works to add biographies about women to Wikipedia and change "redlinks" — those without a page — to blue.

The second acts as inspiration for Wade. The Women Scientists WikiProject was started by Emily Temple-Wood, a prolific Wikipedia editor, known online as Keilana, who also happens to be a medical student.

Emily Temple-Wood, known on Wikipedia as Keilana, was named Wikipedian of the Year in 2016. (Zachary McCune/Wikipedia)

The project began after she says she was targeted with violent harassment because of her gender. Instead of responding to the attacks, she committed to write about one female scientist for each harassing message she received.

"I had to do something with that angry energy, and let it off in a productive way," Temple-Wood told Backchannel in 2017.

While Temple-Wood has backed away from the project, editors like Wade keep it going by adding to the library of female biographies — something Wikipedians (Wikipedia editors) call the "Keilana effect."

'Done with textbooks'

The posts aren't frivolous. Writing a Wikipedia entry, with verifiable sources, takes time, Wade says.

"It's a collection of really thoroughly researched citations and references," she explained. "You can't use someone's blog that says, 'I am the best scientist in the world.'"

Wade sometimes begins with a scientist's university profile. From there, she'll search for publications, presentations, interviews, archived newspaper articles and more.

"You can even find people's yearbooks online from, like, 1957, and there you really get a good understanding of who this scientist is," she said.

We're kind of done with textbooks — they're dated as soon as they're written.- Jessica Wade

While many are quick to criticize Wikipedia for being a crowdsourced — and, therefore, assumed to be a less authoritative — encyclopedia, Wade defends the service.

"We are a generation of people who look everything up. We want to know facts instantly and all the time," she said.

According to Wikipedia statistics, Canadians viewed over 320 million pages on English Wikipedia in July alone. That's about nine pages visited for every Canadian.

More than 400,000 volunteer editors keep the service updated, meaning that new information can be added as quickly as it's discovered.

"We're kind of done with textbooks — they're dated as soon as they're written," Wade told Day 6.

Write stories early

Wade recently wrote the Wikipedia entry for Ann Makosinski, a 20-year-old Canadian inventor, whom she heard about via a media interview.

There's excitement in Wade's voice when she talks about Makosinski's achievements.

In addition to a body heat-powered flashlight, Ann Makosinski designed a mug that uses heat from the drink inside to charge a mobile phone.

Makosinski won the 2013 Google Science Fair with a thermoelectric flashlight — it's powered by body heat — and later went on to win grants from oil producer Shell and was named a Forbes 30 under 30.

She hasn't even graduated from university yet.

"I just thought, 'Oh my gosh, this girl is not only just a bit really cool — she's not just magazine cool, she is phenomenal,'" Wade said.

Despite the inventor's age, she believes that Makosinski already deserves a spot in history.

"She's going to go global. She will be running the world one day and we want to have these early parts of her story there."


To hear the full interview with Jessica Wade, download our podcast or click listen at the top of this page.

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