Systemic bias in policies
Twenty percent of interviewees identified bias in policies on Wikimedia projects as the most challenging obstacle they face. When asked which policies they saw as presenting the most challenges, Notability, Reliable sources, and policies pertaining to categories were the top three responses.
Interviewees offered critical feedback about the way that Wikimedia policies replicate the systemic biases of the larger culture. Consequently, social groups negatively impacted by these biases are obstructed from full and accurate representation in Wikipedia articles. Here are some of the comments interviewees made about the bias they perceive in policies:
- "Male-defined: that’s the standard for everything. If you try to break that, you are seen at trying to break a universal standard, rather than a real standard."
- “One of the biggest challenges is having people understand how [minimally] women are referenced in the past. Some people who nominate an article for deletion believe that an 18th-century woman needs multiple references to show notability.”
- “I often meet difficulties creating articles on women which were not encyclopedic following the rules created by [my] wikipedia community for biographies.”
Other interviewees offered an intersectional perspective about the challenging impact these policies have on equitable representation of knowledge. Here are some of their comments about the way negative bias impacts not only marginalized genders, but also race, geographic origin and other forms of identity subject to discrimination:
- "Also, it’s such a big job to do. Since history is mainly written by white men, we repeat ourselves. Therefore everything that is written already has been expressed as the truth so you have to fight also against that, and you have to argue why the things that are written is not representative for all humans. This is a fact not only in the wiki project but all written culture."
- "The issue of citations--our history is oral, not digital, not Western, not peer-reviewed journals format."
- "There is a dogmatic view on Neutrality, Notability, and Reliability. Wiki’s organizing policies are principles of the minority of the world--white men sitting in North America and Europe. So whenever anyone challenges these, those organizing principles are thrown back at us as weapons of mass oppression."
- “Notability is a challenge when you are doing any wiki work because of the way it’s structured, it’s geared towards the white male perspective.”
One interviewee described a disciplinary bias that privileges hard sciences: "When we talk about gender we are talking about sociology, e.g. queer theory. People don’t like the social sciences as it is not physics. They don’t understand the research and the methodology."
Finally, interviewees noted that these policies can prove especially challenging for new editors. Mastering Wikimedia policies is a steep learning curve for all new editors, but this problem becomes more pronounced in the context of gender equity projects. In this case, volunteers must wrestle not only with unfamiliarity with a new policy, but also with its tendency to uphold implicit bias against their content areas. As one interviewee put it, “The most common systemic bias come across is notability. That can be discouraging to new editors. We do a lot of training around this up front.”