If you were on the internet in April 2019, you may recognize computer scientist Katie Bouman, who went viral after her team captured the world’s first image of a black hole and her thrilled reaction was captured on camera.
That breakthrough prompted a Wikipedia volunteer to draft her biography for the digital encyclopedia. But the same day, it was nearly pulled by someone else who thought she wasn’t notable enough to be included.
This incident points to a bigger problem: women feature in less than one in five biographies on Wikipedia. There are several reasons for this gap.
First, some background: Wikipedia pages are written and edited by a volunteer community that now numbers over 143,000 individuals, around 90% of whom are male. Anyone can write a draft article, and anyone can nominate an article for deletion. Editors then decide by consensus whether to keep the article, merge it with another one or delete it.
These decisions come down to guidelines set by Wikipedia editors in the early days, including a test of notability: Is there significant coverage of the topic in secondary sources? Are these sources reliable? Are they independent of the subject itself? By this criteria, enough editors rushed to defend Katie Bouman’s notability and ultimately saved her article from deletion. Many others, though, never see the light of day.
According to Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, a veteran volunteer who’s written over 5,000 articles since 2007, “information about men is much more readily available in large quantities than it is about women.” If a woman hasn’t been covered sufficiently in secondary sources, a Wikipedia editor may determine that she doesn’t meet the notability standard.