Wikipedia and gendered categories

Recently, some have claimed that the English Wikipedia was “segregating” female novelists.

I don’t follow the complexities of WP as closely as I once did but classification is one of those seemingly innocuous, nerdy things that is more difficult and profound than one would think. Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star wrote a (now classic) book entitled Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences in 1999 that showed how nurses’ work and the racial distinctions in South Africa reflected the biases and power structures of their societies; they wrote “Systems of classification (and of standardization) form a juncture of social organization, moral order, and layers of technical integration” (p. 33). For instance, my understanding of this Wikipedia case is that Amanda Filipacchi’s conclusion was correct: some women had been moved from “American Novelists” to “American Women Novelists” and this was viewed as a demotion.

However, while this can be used as an example of androcentrism or perhaps the work of misguided contributors, it doesn’t recognize that the design, function and implementation of categories is far trickier than we might think.

Taxonomy: How ought we organize our conceptual world?

Since the Enlightenment most encyclopedia abandoned earlier efforts to create a taxonomy of knowledge and simply provided entries via alphabetical order: it’s that hard. (Encyclopedia Britannica’s Propædia was an effort to try to retain some sort of integrated view of knowledge but was in no way comprehensive.) While Wikipedia is sometimes characterized as a “Web 2.0” site, this system of categories and subcategories is out of step with sites that simply permit people to tag things, and then query those tags.

Manageability: What makes a good category page?

In an attempt to create a taxonomy of concepts and related articles, you might end up with massive pages. Hence, many of the decisions at Wikipedia aren’t so much about taxonomy but usefulness, and massive pages aren’t useful. Hence, there are efforts to pare down pages when possible by moving things to subcategories, which I think is what was happening here.

Biases: How do categories reflect social/historical biases?

Yet, the notion that men are the default is problematic. Why should women be “dumped” in a subcategory? (Similarly, Sam Klein noted that male beauty pageants are separated from beauty pageants.)

Wikipedia’s guideline permits gender specific subcategories “where gender has a specific relation to the topic.”

For example, Category:Women contains articles such as International Women’s Day, Women’s studies, and female-specific subcategories. Similarly, Category:Men contains articles such as father, men’s studies, boy and human male sexuality, as well as male-specific subcategories. Neither category, however, should directly contain individual women or individual men.

Women novelists doesn’t strike me as “a specific relation” and I believe the movement of authors was more of an effort to pare down the size of the page.

Meaning: Is being moved from “American Novelists” to “American Women Novelists” a “demotion?”

I think so, and most agree this is problematic. Indeed, while the Wikipedia guideline recognized “specific relation” subcategories, instances of those subcategories should still be included in the parent category. In the example of heads of government “Both male and female heads of government should continue to be filed in the appropriate gender-neutral role category (e.g. Presidents, Monarchs, Prime Ministers, Governors General).”

Usefulness: Is being able to easily find “American Women Novelists” useful?

Indeed. As Liz Henry and Sarah Stierch have argued, attempts to delete/neuter pages about women novelists, scientists, and others are also problematic.

Technology: How best to implement the functionality we want?

Is it possible that instances of a subcategory could also show up alongside instances of a parent category? This isn’t technically supported now and parent category pages would continue to be massive. Could we instead have tags (instead of categories and taxonomy) which are queryable (e.g., “show me all novelists who are also female”)? This is the “Web 2.0” way of things, and can be done, but its not how Wikipedia is presently built.

Practice: Imperfect

I continue to be surprised Wikipedia works at all. Many Wikipedians often do their best, but it is very messy: sometimes there is little consensus and people do things in good faith without understanding the implications. This work can also be incremental and haphazard, giving an incomplete or confusing picture at any specific moment in time, or reveal a latent and distributed bias.

Given the technology on hand, I think it makes sense to create “specific relation” pages but ensure their content is not presented as segregated or less-than other content.

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