Is Wikipedia Sexist? Yes. Just Like Everything Else


Sharp-eyed Wikipedia readers made an interesting discovery on Thursday, noting that the site’s “American novelist” page has become more and more male-dominated as female writers have been migrated over to a separate “American women novelist” page. French-American writer Amanda Filipacchi broke the news, noting, “So far, female authors whose names begin with A or B have been most affected, though many others have, too.

“The intention appears to be to create a list of ‘American Novelists’ on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men,” she writes. “The category lists 3,837 authors, and the first few hundred of them are mainly men.”

Female writers have been getting gradually removed and re-categorized; a banner at the top of the American novelist page explains: “This category may require frequent maintenance to avoid becoming too large. It should directly contain very few, if any, articles and should mainly contain subcategories.”

There is no correlating subcategory for American male novelists.

Wikipedia — where women make up only 15% of contributors, and just 9% of editors — has long been known as something of a man’s world, as too are many digital and tech communities. But female writers cite this as just the latest example of sexism in a literary community that’s saturated with it; The New York Review of Books reviewed only 40 female authors last year, compared to 215 male authors. The New York Times Book Review, meanwhile, covered 273 women’s books, compared to 520 men’s.

“All too often,” writes novelist Liza Palmer, “when a woman writes a book about family and relationships the reader will sigh that she felt the narrator’s inner monologues were ‘whiny’ whereas when a male writer contemplates these same topics he is being ‘introspective.’”

Categories matter. Even on Wikipedia, where we can all imagine a situation in which an enumerated list of female writers would be convenient, or even helpful. In the same way that our voting patterns can be predicted based on an (R) or a (D), so too do we inherit preconceived notions about a work according to the known attributes of its originator.

(See Harvard’s infamous Implicit Association Test.)

What’s really at stake are the hidden values and costs attributed to the sub-categorization of female and minority voices within certain fields — and the niche audiences that typically follow as a result. American men (or white-abled-heterosexual American men, for that matter) enjoy the luxury of being the majority, and with it the blank-slate. Anyone who falls beyond that may be further categorized for convenience’s sake, especially where relevant to the work. A novelist is a novelist unless she’s a female, in which case she’s a “female novelist,” especially if she’s a female novelist writing about feminist themes. She instantly becomes a voice for women, inheriting the burden of minority representation; it’s almost laughable to consider someone thinking He’s the voice of white people or What an impressive, career-driven man he is! 

The majority has the luxury of being the voice of one; minorities do not.

Writers and artists have long resented this categorization, and the effect it has on the reception of their work. The intent to affirm the minority voice has resulted in the subjugation of it. He’s one of the greatest contemporary writers carries a much different and greater ring than He’s one of the greatest contemporary gay writers — the latter carrying a modifier that at once seeks to amplify a culture, yet in a subtle way, belittles both the author and the work. As if to suggest they belong in a separate category.

Is Wikipedia sexist? Probably — the novelist section certainly is. But so is most of the rest of the world we live in, where every artist, poet, writer, or politician is white, male, able bodied and heterosexual — unless otherwise specified.