In a special access-only boardroom on one of the top floors the brutalist British Library, a group of people are gathered around a long wooden table. At odds with the old-school furniture and classical paintings on the wall, each face is glowing in the light from a laptop screen in front of them. They jostle for plug sockets as the Wi-Fi password is handed around, and at the announcement from the front that there are sandwiches for lunch, the room murmurs with approval. After all, food is why everyone’s here.
I’m attending a Wikipedia editing session, which is nothing new as a concept, but this one has a special purpose. In collaboration with the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and the British Library, Wiki-Food and (mostly) Women was founded in 2014 with the aim of improving and expanding Wikipedia’s food coverage, especially (but not exclusively) entries related to women and those outside of the Western gaze.
“Part of the reason we held the first session was the gender gap with who is doing the editing,” says Roberta Wedge, who helped set up the first edit-a-thon. “It’s a largely Anglophone world, highly educated men of a certain persuasion, you know the kind of men who like to do these things.”
She raises an eyebrow and I catch her drift.
Wedge’s claims aren’t unfounded. In 2013, a survey by the Wikimedia Foundation revealed that 83 per cent of its editors are men. And this gender bias in turn extends to Wikipedia’s content. According to Wikidata, only 17.64 percent of the biographies on the English language Wikipedia are about women. Wikipedia editing sessions aimed at tackling the site’s gender imbalance are now frequent and global.
Polly Russell, Wiki-Food co-founder, food historian and curator at the British Library, tells me: “This imbalance is particularly striking with the subject of food which, in so many ways, connects to women’s lives, histories and biographies. The idea that Wiki content lacked representation of women’s contribution to the fields of food and cookery seemed particularly egregious.”
To date, entries on figures like Italian food writer Anna Del Conte and Indian food historian Chitrita Banerji, as well as subjects like ladies’ ordinaries (women-only dining spaces that appeared in North America in the early 19th century), have been added. But there’s still a long way to go.
In today’s session, the editor gender gap is in reverse with around 80 per cent women to 20 per cent men, all from different backgrounds. Many are academics but there are also nutritional therapists and food business owners among the group. Everyone has different levels of experience with Wiki-editing, with some veterans around the table but for most, this being the first time. Though, there’s one common theme: everyone is surprised at how overwhelmingly biased Wikipedia’s content is.
“I work with a lot of women, I’ve read a lot of women’s work so when Polly sent round the list of all the gaps in Wikipedia about women and food, I thought, ‘How is this possible?’” says food anthropology PhD student Mukta Das. “Women who are amazing and have done so much have no entry against their names.”
From the early modern period onwards, most cookery writers were women writing for other women
Helena, an MA history student, tells me: “From the early modern period onwards, most cookery writers were women writing for other women. When I’ve been online doing research, Wikipedia is a good starting point to get the basics and some women aren’t there at all or there are mistakes in their entries.”
Wikipedia’s popularity as an information source is why it’s important to increase the diversity of its content and its editors. Google consistently gives Wikipedia articles strong standing in search results and, to the distress of teachers and university lecturers, from where a lot of people get information.
Kelly Foster, who’s leading today’s session, started editing and creating a series of articles on black British female artists in 2012 after finding it difficult to source information on a particular artist she wanted to know more about.
“For me personally, it’s important for marginalised and underrepresented voices to be present in how we think about information and how we access information online,” Foster says. “We as a society have this expectation that everything is online but the stuff is only there when you put it there.”
She continues: “I think Wikipedia offers an opportunity for people to take that power into their own hands and shine a light on parts of marginalised societies that are excluded from the content that is produced about them.”
After learning the basics about how Wikimedia—the non-profit organisation that supports Wikipedia editors—works and the technical logistics, everyone sets about creating accounts and a user page. There’s a buzz as everyone gets to grips with editing, previewing changes and hovering over the ‘publish’ button before sending their information out into the world.
While everyone starts researching and drafting their first entries, I corner Robin Owain, the Wales manager at Wikimedia UK. The Welsh language Wikipedia is special in its approach to the gender balance: 53 percent of its articles are about women and 47 percent about men.
“It was a conscious decision [to enforce a gender balance]. We collected as much information in a database about female scientists and automated a way of creating little young shoots of articles which can later on grow into something a bit larger,” he says. “We’ve got to fight to make changes. We’ve got to edit and fight for those edits. We’ll change nothing by sitting here and doing nothing.”
Wiki-Food and (mostly) Women has a list of suggested entries that need adding but Russell points out that the beauty of the process is that, really, there’s no prescribed list. She says: “One of the best things about Wiki in general and our project in particular is that I don’t curate the people or topics. It’s very democratic and up to the Wiki editors to decide what gaps need filling and what existing entries could be improved.”
After the edit-a-thon, Russell gives me a rundown of the session’s stats: nine new articles were created, 31 were edited, 215 edits were made and 5,280 words added. Among those new articles were baker Claire Ptak, Michelin-starred Malaysian chef Kwen Liew and French social enterprise The Food Assembly.
Just as in the offline world, the gender gap will be slow to close but as Owain rightly pointed out, we’ll change nothing by sitting here and doing nothing.