“History is not a simple meritocracy.” So goes the opening salvo of Despina Stratigakos’ “Unforgetting Women Architects,” an essay on writing women practitioners back into the historical record. We’ve touched on this topic in previous blog posts about the history of women in architecture and the importance of making their work visible, especially online. Yet in advance of the Women in Architecture and the Arts Wikipedia edit-a-thon next Wednesday March 28th, it seemed an opportune time to take another look at the troubling lack of female representation on Wikipedia and within the architectural profession.
When we talk about representation of women on Wikipedia, we actually talk about two distinct, yet intimately connected, issues. One issue is a gender asymmetry in the site’s content, the other is an asymmetry in the site’s contributors. Myriad and complex factors contribute to both. Wikipedia’s structure and ideology, the fact that many of its veteran editors are white and male, the perceived lack of importance and cultural relevance of issues significant to women implicit in Wikipedia’s criteria for “notability,” sometimes ruthlessly enforced by the site’s self-appointed gatekeepers; these and other factors cause significant lacunae and stark attrition among female editors (who account for 13% of contributors) in an encyclopedia that purports to be the “sum of all human knowledge.”
In fact, some quick research demonstrates the widened scope of notability criteria where men and men’s interests are concerned. As a much-circulated New York Times article from 2011 points out, and indeed accounts from (sometimes expert) women contributors writing about women, there can be a lot of pushback on articles addressing women’s interests: nitpicking about sourcing and whether an article’s subject is “notable” enough to warrant inclusion on the site; indeed, articles on women are often flagged as not even adhering to Wikipedia’s neutrality guidelines. Yet there are lengthy articles and sub-articles about video games, video game characters, male-dominated television shows, and, of course, biographical articles on men in many fields that are often published without challenge. To this point, a research article addressing gender bias in Wikipedia’s content has found that women on Wikipedia are, on the whole, more “notable” than their male counterparts, indicating that one must reach a higher threshold of accomplishment as a woman in order to be deemed important enough to merit an article – a threshold that the article characterizes as “the glass ceiling effect.” Also of note, the article presents evidence that certain topics are overstated in women’s biographies and tend to receive more attention than their work, i.e., their personal relationships and family status.
Wikipedia culture is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a microcosm of culture writ large and its participatory homogeneity mirrors that of other kinds of open online forums that depend on user-generated content. The way the site reproduces bias, however, may be exacerbated by its claim to neutrality that is meant to bolster its reliability and credibility. This principle, when coupled with a lack of diversity in its user base, is problematic in that neutrality then comes to be synonymous with a white male point of view. This likely explains much of the resistance and flags that women encounter when they attempt to publish pages about other women. They claim that women should write their gender out of their entries; this may very well be because male editors have become accustomed to perceiving their own form of gendered analysis as the default – it is not, however, neutral.
Many scholars and practitioners (Susana Torre, Denise Scott Brown, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Dolores Hayden, Despina Stratigakos, Lori Brown, and Gabrielle Esperdy, to name but a few) have worked to challenge and dismantle pernicious myths about the architectural profession. Institutions like the International Archive of Women in Architecture and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation have made the collection of women architects’ papers a top priority and have helped to “recover a cultural past” and properly historicize the conditions of women’s professional exclusion. Additionally, in recent years scholars, information specialists, and architects have worked to ensure greater representation in online environments – enhancing discoverability of otherwise underappreciated or forgotten historical figures. Unfortunately there isn’t space here to fully unpack all of these women’s various contributions to the field and its literature. Please join us next Wednesday in the Multipurpose Room at Newman Library to engage with their analysis more fully and to rewrite digital history! RSVP for the Women in Architecture Edit-a-thon here.
1. Despina Stratigakos, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal, April 2016. Accessed 21 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/130603
2. Cohen, Noam. “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.” The New York Times, 30 January 2011. Accessed 21 March 2018.
3. Gardner, Sue. “Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (In Their Own Words),” Sue Gardner’s Blog, 19 February 2011. Accessed 21 Mar 2018.
4. Wagner, Claudia, et al. “Women through the Glass Ceiling: Gender Asymmetries in Wikipedia.” EPJ Data Science, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-24.
5. Davidge, Tania. “How to be ‘notable.'”Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture website, 24 April 2015. Accessed 22 March 2018.
6. Gardner, 2011.
7. Cohen, 2011.
8. Bear, Julia B., and Benjamin Collier. “Where are the Women in Wikipedia? Understanding the Different Psychological Experiences of Men and Women in Wikipedia.” Sex Roles, vol. 74, no. 5, 2016, pp. 254-265.
9. Cohen, 2011.
10. Vigor, Emily. “Down the Rabbit Hole: (Miss)adventures in Wikipedia.” Environmental Design blog, UC Berkeley, 3 April 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.
12. Wagner et al., 2016.
14. Vigor, 2015.
15. Gardner, 2011.
16. Torre, Susana, 1944, and Architectural League of New York. Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977. Scott Brown, Denise. Having words. Vol. 4;4.;. London: Architectural Association, 2009. Berkeley, Ellen P., and Matilda McQuaid. Architecture: A Place for Women. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington [D.C.], 1989. Hayden, Dolores. “What would a Non-Sexist City be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 3, 1980, pp. S170-S187. Stratigakos, Despina. Where are the Women Architects?. Princeton University Press, in association with Places Journal, Princeton, 2016. Brown, Lori A. Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture. Ashgate, Burlington, VT; Farnham, Surrey, 2011. Esperdy, Gabrielle. “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” Places Journal, September 2012. Accessed 22 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/120910
17. Torre, 1977.
18. Moritz, Cyndi. “Project Aims to Raise Profile of Women Architects on Wikipedia.” Syracuse University News, 1 June 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.
19. “The Year Five Campaign.” Art + Feminism. Accessed 22 March 2018.
20. “Welcome to Parlour.” Archiparlour. Accessed 22 March 2018.