Category Archives: Journalism

Wikipedia’s gendering of novelists & how it got resolved

An April 24 op-ed in the New York Times about where one might find articles about American women novelists on Wikipedia shows both the little-known and underestimated importance of categorization but also how people can resist policies and change-indeed, pretty quickly—how things are done on Wikipedia.

Amanda Filipacchi, herself a novelist, opened up her column by noting “something strange on Wikipedia”: editors had apparently begun moving women, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists”  subcategory.

The move was occurring alphabetically: As of April 24, women whose last names began with A or B were primarily the ones to have been moved to the new list, although others have, too. Wikipedia did not announce that women had been moved from the general category of novelists to a specific list of women novelists. It did have an announcement at the top of the list under American Novelists that this list is too long, and so pages about novelists “should be moved to subcategories where applicable.” The general category, it added, should contain very few, if any, articles and should mainly contain subcategories.”

Filipacchi said the intention “appears to be to create a list of ‘American Novelists’ on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men.” I do not think that was actually the intention. Wikipedia simply doesn’t think through some of these issues.

But, within 24 hours, all the women were added back to American Novelists. Meanwhile, the same day, a new subcategory to American novelists was added: American men novelists. If you click there, you get language suggesting that men may yet be merged (back) into Category: American novelists. And the page asks for feedback: “Please share your thoughts on this category’s on the Categories for discussion page. (Other subcategories include novelists who won Pulitzer Prizes; novelists of ethnic or non-US origin, as well as American writers of crime fiction, spy fiction, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, romantic fiction, graphic novels, and so forth.

While the category of American women novelists lives on, an editing note (which one can find if one clicks on the editing tab at the top right) for the Wikipedia page on Filapacchi herself indicates that, given her Op Ed, probably she should be moved off the “female novelist” lists. Notably, I would add, although the New York Times added the headline “Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists,” the Wikipedia categorizers did not use the terms “male” and “female.” That’s a good thing, since male and female are biological terms, totally irrelevant here, and biology is beside the point.

Interestingly, there is, for example, a category for US actresses—once again where several subcategories have been created and Wikipedia wants more subcategories and fewer pages in that general category—but no category at all for “actors.”

Filipacchi was right to complain. People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas about who to honor, or read, or write about, might not notice that the list of “American Novelists” was dominated by men. The problem with these “unmarked” and “marked” categories is that the “unmarked category (man, novelist, doctor, actor, judge, steward) is implicitly offered and taken to be the dominant category, the “main” one, the “right” one. In contrast, the extra ending that makes for the “marked” term (woman novelist, female doctor, actress, woman judge, stewardess) is made to be different, deviant. And, with only a few exceptions (widow/widower) women represent the “Other.”

This affair proves two crucial points. First, this shows why Wikipedia needs diversity. It looked to me, again judging from the editing trail, that a single man decided to create the subcategory, albeit the same man who changed it back again. Different people will think about different things, notice different things, contribute different things. The importance of diversity among contributors cannot be underestimated.

Second, it shows, as Stine Eckert says, the power to NAME, SHAME, and CHANGE. Filipacchi had e-mailed some women writers who call themselves WOM (it stands for Word of Mouth). Not only was she deluged with “scandalized responses” but word quickly spread. As I noted, within a day of the op-ed, precisely the changes she and others called for had happened. Wikipedia is fallible but also flexible and adaptable. Wikipedia—its people– and can correct the mistakes, and collectively they do.


Tech writing dominated by white men

Jamelle Bouie posted an article for The Magazine (issue 7) headlined: “An implicit network, not overt racism, keeps tech writing dominated by white men.” His point is that few (that is, there are a few, but not many) people of color are staff and regular contributors to technology magazines, websites, or blogs. Even his own The Magazine, he says, has “issues” with diversity: of the 26 people who contributed to the first six issues, 22 were white men.

Moreover, he notes that everyone uses gadgets, with African Americans and Latinos, for example, using Twitter and Facebook at higher rates than whites. (Bouie’s reference to color does not mean, of course, South Asians and Southeast Asians.)

He partly chalks up the problem for African Americans and Latinos to internships—and the economic issue of who can afford to take an unpaid internship. The same social-economic issue MAY be connected to who enjoys the social status or networks needed (or at least convenient) to breaking into technology journalism.

I don’t think internships are the major issue, since our research indicates that with many such issues (and certainly the relative lack of women throughout STEM fields) begins WAAAY before college and the question of internships. Such notions about what one can or cannot do, what one is likely to be successful or a failure at, begin in childhood. Early childhood. Certainly the internships would not explain why so few white women are writing about technology.

But he is correct, and totally on point, that the technology community is large and diverse: “We should want the community of people who write about it to mirror that diversity. We have nothing to lose, and a huge wealth of perspectives and experiences to gain.”

Thus the need for early education programs to give kids early confidence that they can develop and use online skills, and contribute their knowledge. And we really hope that Wikid GRRLS will attract African American and Latinas girls.


Pretty (sexist) in pink

The February 12, 2013 launch by a Dubai-based consumer electronics company of a tablet it calls “the ePad Femme” has been greeted with sarcasm and groans, if not condemnation by women and men. But instead of staying with the first knee-jerk reaction, let’s analyze the issues.

The Android tablet, says the company EUROSTAR, is pre-loaded with a plethora of applications such as yoga, fitness, cooking, recipes, health, a clothing size converter, as well as apps for finding movies and other forms of entertainment. [Mr.] Raju Jethwani, the corporate chairman, was quoted as saying: “The new ePad Femme Tablet is catered to women who may have many diverse interests and will seamlessly fit into their lifestyle. We are especially enthusiastic about the wide ranging applications and utility this tablet will offer to women.”

Apparently without irony, the writer for jazarah, a website for Middle-Eastern-based advertising/marketing/media enthusiasts, called it the perfect Valentine’s Day gift.

Eurostar’s associate vice president of marketing Mani Nair told the Jerusalem Post the tablet “makes a perfect gadget for a woman who might find difficulties in terms of downloading these applications and it is a quick reference.” Nair denied any sexist intent in choosing the applications.

One critic described the ePad Femme as sexist and patronizing—as implying that the gadget implies that women cannot download the apps they want. Casey Johnston of Ars Technica wrote, with undenied sarcasm: “At long last, a company has designed a tablet fit for the use of an entire gender that has, thus far, apparently gone unserved…. Thank the heavens, ladies may never trouble their pretty heads with such difficulties as finding and downloading their own apps ever again.” Gary Cutlack criticized its chauvinistic selection as well.

Among the ironies: several posts about the ePad Femme heard references to women’s sanitary products—without remarking that the same thing was said about the iPad when it was first launched.

The more important question is whether this will be popular with the intended market. Or not. “Given the number of affordable, gender-neutral, and yet still user-friendly tablets available,” Johnston expressed no surprise that the tablet has yet to be a big seller. But it’s young. And the fact is, product differentiation is the name of the game. There is plenty of differentiation in clothes, jewelry, or beauty products—often marketed with a “pink” theme. Some people like them and buy them and use them. And some people don’t.

Presumably Eurostar conducted some focus group testing.  I’d like to know whether women really did work on this project—from the inside, as paid engineers, designers, and so forth. Maybe it will be a total flop. Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi feminist blogger told The Media Line column for the Jerusalem Post, “Whoever made this Tablet doesn’t understand us very well.”

It’s also worth noting that a Japanese manufacturer added a Ultrabook aimed at Asian Pacific women; available in several colors, Fujitsu’s light-weight laptop features zirconia ornaments and a pearlized power button.

Johnston already objected to the pinkification of gadgets, with their sexist marketing and targeting, and sees the ePad Femme as extending “this sorry tradition.” I, too, first reacted with a cringe. We’d like to see more purple products, but fewer pink products and fewer blue ones.

Still, the issue is getting a range of products serving different people’s different needs. No one says women can’t remove the apps they don’t like or want. Meanwhile, the wi-fi enabled and highly affordable (it costs $190) Femme Tablet is also pre-loaded with Google Talk, Android Market, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Gmail, a dictionary, and an encyclopedia. Any user can choose to tinker with it. And perhaps this will not be the last tablet the women will ever buy (or be given): they will see what technology can do, having learned with the tablet’s simplified user interface with big and clear icons, and go on to more sophisticated, more useful, less sexist, more “purple” products. In the meantime, it’s a choice.