The Problem of Women in Science in Wikipedia

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was a 19th century English mathematician and writer who wrote the first algorithm that was processed by Charles Babbage’s early computer. (She was also Byron's daughter.) Photograph by Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. If you have to ask who Ada Lovelace is, that’s the point. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was a 19th century English mathematician and writer who wrote the algorithm to be processed by Charles Babbage’s early computer. As a result, she is often called the world’s first computer scientist. She was also Byron’s sole legitimate child; Lovelace’s mother encouraged her early interest in mathematics to ward off the madness that had afflicted the famed Romantic poet.

All of this you can find (as I did) on Lovelace’s Wikipedia page, and that is what Ada Lovelace Day is about—not coding, not mathematics, not even Romantic poetry, but history, and setting it straight. It’s the brainchild of the journalist and activist Suw Charman-Anderson, who noticed that Wikipedia’s historical entries were notably short on women. To remedy this, she began to organize Wiki edit-a-thons where Wikipedia contributors (Wikipedians, in their own description) gathered to beef up or add entries about overlooked women.

Today’s event, which focuses on the sciences, was organized by Maia Weinstock, a blogger and the news director of the educational website BrainPOP, along with her former undergraduate biology advisor at Brown University, Anne Fausto-Sterling. Contributors can participate in person, at Brown, or virtually. The event’s wiki site has a list of women scientists who, in Weinstock and Fausto-Sterling’s opinion, are given short shrift on Wikipedia.

The concept unites two spheres where gender balance has been a particularly acute issue: the sciences and Wikipedia. This isn’t the first time, of course, that the issue of women in science has been in the news. Larry Summers, in a now-infamous 2005 speech, brought more attention than he no doubt intended when he wondered aloud whether the paucity of women in top science jobs had something to do with innate ability. (He eventually lost his job over the comments; his successor, distinguished historian Drew Gilpin Faust, is a woman.) The more women whose accomplishments are included in the official record—and Wikipedia, for better or worse, has become at least one official record—the more young females might be encouraged to go into the field.

Wikipedia itself has wrestled with the issue of gender since a 2010 study found that its contributor base was 87 percent male (with an average age in the mid-twenties). This helps explain the length and detail of the Wikipedia entry on Sauron, especially when compared, for example, to that of Ada Louise Huxtable. The Wikimedia Foundation, which collaborated on the study and runs the site, rightly realizes that because Wikipedia has become the world’s de facto online reference site, such lack of representation has become a problem. Ada Lovelace Day is presumably a way to try to hurry that process along, on both fronts.