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Students ‘correct gender bias’ on Wikipedia for science class project

But historian ‘skeptical about such attempts to elevate people of a certain group’

A Meredith College biology professor is working to “correct gender bias” on Wikipedia by having her students write new entries about female scientists for the online encyclopedia.

The project is part of Professor Natasha Butz’s “Women in Science” class – a subject the private North Carolina college deems to be so important that it recently decided to offer the class more often, according to a news article on the college’s website.

Butz, an assistant professor of biological sciences, gave her fall class the assignment to write an article for one of two projects Wikipedia projects: WikiProject Women Scientists and Under-representation of Science and Women in Africa, the article states.

The WikiProject Women Scientists is “dedicated to ensuring quality and coverage of biographies of female scientists” as part of a larger effort by Wikipedia to “counter and remedy the systemic bias with women on Wikipedia.”

Similarly, Under-representation of science and women in Africa aims at addressing the underrepresentation of women in science by encouraging people to “write Wikipedia biographies of South African women scientists,” according to its Wikipedia page.

Butz initially responded to a Feb. 27 email from The College Fix by asking to follow up with her the following week. However, she did not respond to two subsequent emails from The Fix in the past two weeks.

Butz told Meredith’s news department the “Women in Science” course is “relevant” as a means of correcting an “imbalance in the representation of men and women in STEM.”

The college cited a 2021 survey that found that only 17% of biographies on Wikipedia focused on female subjects.

Meredith’s biology department recently decided to offer the course more often, changing from once every two years to once a year. The class will be offered again in the fall and will be taught by Butz, according to the college’s fall semester course schedule.

While the efforts are lauded by some, others like historian Mary Grabar see problems.

“I am always skeptical about such attempts to elevate people of a certain group,” Grabar told The Fix via email last week. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, which works to resist “the re-education of America.”

Grabar said certain occupations tend to be male- or female-dominated, which may contribute to the perception of bias. However, seeming overrepresentation of one group does not necessarily entail bias, she said.

“If only 17% of the biographies are dedicated to women, then we should ask why,” she told The Fix. “For one, women historically have not had the same opportunity to excel in public life. Nor did they feel the same desire.”

In a science class like the one at Meredith, Grabar said the professor and students “should look at the data on women’s preferences and abilities,” which show that “populations in the aggregate reveal a bias for certain occupations.”

Some individuals may “excel in professions dominated by another group,” and these individuals “should be given equal opportunities” – which the law has guaranteed for the past 60 years, Grabar said.

As long as “women who have accomplished as much as … men” are treated equally, “I don’t see what the problem is,” Grabar said.

The Meredith class isn’t the first to have students “correct gender bias” on Wikipedia. In 2015, The Fix reported about similar efforts by other universities – including Brown, Yale, and Penn State – to combat “sexism” and “write feminist thinking” into the online encyclopedia.

Since then, others have followed suit, with WikiEdu reporting one professor’s students produced 68 biographies for female scientists in under a year.

MORE: Feds to Dole Out $200K to Study Why Wikipedia is Sexist

IMAGE: WikiProject Women scientists/Wikipedia

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Mary Mobley is a student at The Master's University majoring in political studies with an emphasis in constitutional law.