Science in Mind

Solving Wikipedia’s woman (scientist) problem

When biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling began her career at Brown University in 1971, she worked in a four-story building with a bathroom on each floor. The men’s and women's bathrooms alternated floors—until a faculty member on the third floor decided he wanted more space and had the women’s bathroom annexed onto his office. Women had to regularly walk three flights just to pee.

Back then, Fausto-Sterling recalls, the old boys’ network was inescapable. There were only about a half-dozen tenured women on a faculty of 400. It was common for a man to just call up a friend and ask “Who’s your best man coming out with a new PhD?” when hiring. So it felt like a bold move when women created a sign for the fourth-floor men’s bathroom that said either “male occupied” or “female occupied” and started using it.

Things have changed for the better since then, but subtle biases remain. Next week, working with a former student, Maia Weinstock, Fausto-Sterling will host an event on the Brown campus to help reclaim territory online: a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. They hope to gather a few dozen people in a room to create and flesh out entries that describe the contributions and lives of women scientists.

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“Many contemporary women scientists are either absent entirely, or there is just a stub," Fausto-Sterling said. She first noticed the information gap when looking up a historian of science who helped break open the field of gender studies, Margaret Rossiter. Rossiter had won a coveted MacArthur genius grant and coined the term “Matilda effect” to describe the phenomenon of men getting credit for the contributions of women scientists. But her entry was just two sentences long.

The more Fausto-Sterling looked, the more examples she found. Vera Kistiakowsky, a nuclear physicist who worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology starting in the mid-1960s, was virtually absent from Wikipedia. At a moment in history when that website is often the first place people look when starting a search for basic information about a topic, that makes many women’s contributions virtually invisible.

Kistiakowsky was a pioneer; a Mount Holyoke College web page describing her contributions called her “one of the country’s outstanding scientists of the 20th century.” Meanwhile, Fausto-Sterling noticed, many of her male contemporaries and colleagues have lengthy Wikipedia entries. Why, then, were a trailblazer’s contributions virtually unmentioned?

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) wrote the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine.Wikimedia Commons

Fausto-Sterling hadn’t ever been a Wikipedia contributor, but reconnected with Weinstock, a former student who had begun staging Wikipedia edit-a-thons to increase the Internet’s memory of women’s contributions to science and technology. Weinstock gave Fausto-Sterling a private session in how to create an account and edit pages properly, and Fausto-Sterling asked if she would help organize a campus edit-a-thon. They chose Tuesday, Oct. 15, a day set aside to honor the early computer scientist Ada Lovelace, to host the event.

Some people will come with a woman scientist or engineer already in mind, but the group is also collecting a list of under-recognized women whose entries could use some work.

Things have certainly improved; the number of women pursuing graduate degrees and making their way into the faculty ranks has risen. Institutions have made efforts to support young faculty who may be trying to make their biggest scientific contributions while also starting their families.

But the reminders of just how recent that change is recently came to my attention while reporting a different story. In a lovely autobiographical essay published in the Annual Review of Biophysics and Biomolecular Structure, Martin Karplus, a Harvard emeritus professor who this week won the Nobel prize in chemistry, recounted research during his undergraduate days, with a fascinating aside:

“At the end of three years at Harvard, I needed only one more course to complete the requirements for a bachelor degree. During the previous year I had done research with Ruth Hubbard and her husband, George Wald. (Although Hubbard was scientifically on par with Wald, she remained a Senior Research Associate, a nonprofessorial appointment, until very late in her career when she was finally ‘promoted’ to Professor. This was not an uncommon fate for women in science.)”

I checked, and Hubbard’s Wikipedia entry isn’t bad, although it focuses largely on the social and political activism she engaged in after she moved away from science.

“As part of a bridge generation I know how bad it was,” and how much it has changed, Fausto-Sterling said. But there’s still work to be done.

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