Jessica Wade, the feminist who uses Wikipedia as a weapon

Jessica Wade is waging a war online. Her goal? To rehabilitate women in science, they who are erased from it. Her weapon? Wikipedia. On the online encyclopedia, Jessica Wade has created 1,800 pages dedicated to leading women scientists. The journalist Margaux Seigneur went to meet this scientist like no other. 

Every time Kim Cobb is published, the world shakes. Born in 1974, the American climatologist, a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is one of the famous experts of the IPCC, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Kim Cobb monitors climate variability," says her Wikipedia page. Translated into 12 languages, his online biography reveals an impressive scientific background. Yet despite her prominent role in the scientific world, Kim Cobb was absent from Wikipedia until very recently.

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Five years ago, at a conference, Kim Cobb crossed paths with Jessica Wade, another scientist. It was to Wade that the climate scientist first appeared on the online encyclopedia. "I was immediately impressed by this woman and her research. She has a rare intelligence and her discoveries have helped science considerably," says Jessica Wade, who gives us an interview in her laboratory. The scientist with the thick dark glasses wants to learn more about Cobb's work. She searches Google. Dr. Wade is stunned to discover that the scientist is not mentioned on Wikipedia. Her male colleagues at the IPCC, Ed Hawkins and Piers Forsler, are listed.  Immediately, Jessica Wade started writing her biography. She doesn't know it yet, but she is at the beginning of a real battle that will make her a leading feminist. 

Kim Cobb's Wikipedia page was the first of 1,800 written by Jessica Wade. All are dedicated to women scientists. Her goal? To give them the consideration they are due but have never been given. "Wikipedia is a platform that is known but mostly read by everyone. And it has big gaps in the representation of women," says Jessica Wade.

Despite the platform's promise of universality, biographies written about women represent only 19% of Wikipedia's content, according to Humaniki. "Not only do we not have enough women in science, but we don't do enough to celebrate those who are," Jessica Wade denounces. "Every day for the past five years, I have been writing a biography about a woman scientist. So far, I've never lacked inspiration," smiles Jessica Wade.

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It's a strange ritual that Jessica follows: in the early evening, she sits at her desk, her eyes riveted to her computer, frantically tapping on her keyboard. With no less than twenty tabs open, the scientist digs and snoops. Since the lack of representation of women in science can't be rectified by writing a few biographies now and then, Wade forces herself to write one a day. "It's a routine that enriches me greatly. It has even become an addiction," she jokes, her voice drowned out by the noise of the machines in her lab.

The Matilda phenomenon 

Among the names of the women scientists Jessica Wade has put on Wikipedia are Gladys West, the African-American mathematician who developed the GPS system; Ijeoma Uchegbu, whose research in pharmaceutical nanoscience has advanced cancer care; and June Lindsey, who helped Maurice Wilkins and James Watson discover DNA and win the Nobel Prize. "It's such a small thing to write the biographies of women whose work has helped change the world," exclaims Jessica Wade, who has her own Wikipedia page. A renowned scientist, she specializes in "characterizing thin films of polymers." 

In 1967, the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar. This revelation will have earned the Nobel Prize in Physics to his thesis director, Antony Hewish, and Martin Ryle without the name of Burnell being mentioned. This is what scientists have called the Matilda phenomenon: a widespread practice of minimizing or even denying the contribution of women scientists, who are monopolized by their male counterparts. 

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Created in 2001, the encyclopedia project aims to be free, universal and multilingual. With 2,483,257 articles to its credit, the platform has more than 17,000 contributors and welcomes about 70 million visitors every day. This is the challenge for Jessica Wade, as the largest encyclopedia ever created promises universal access, while committing to being an objective source.

To wage her online guerrilla war, Jessica Wade had to learn the basics of editing on Wikipedia. She consults digital archives and scours faculty platforms to find the information needed to write a biography. These must be built from secondary sources based on strict referencing. "The task is difficult. I can't just interview someone and transcribe their background," she explains.

Wikipedia, by and for men

The observation made by the scientist is shared by other experts of the platform. Rémi Mathis, former president of Wikimedia France, says that Wikipedia is a structure with a misogynistic atmosphere. "When 80% of the members are young men, it is possible that there is an atmosphere that is a bit too "sexist jokes", explains the specialist. This atmosphere is hostile to women who prefer to stay away from it." Wikipedia contributors, those who edit the pages, are 80% men. So the regulation is done by men. "Women are absent from the history books and will continue to be absent if we don't change the narrative of gender exclusion. It is therefore logical that there is an overwhelming majority of biographies about men," explains Anne Melin, founder of Les Expertes, a directory that lists women researchers, business leaders, etc. to ensure their representation in the media. Because Wikipedia's narrative is centered on men, women are absent or in the shadows. 

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According to the Frenchwoman, "a rewriting of the historical narrative must begin with education and continue in the media. By providing teacher training in gender-neutral education, children could be inspired by women and men scientists who changed the course of history." In this way, gendered orientation would drastically decrease and girls would be more committed to science education. 

Jessica Wade has personally experienced this gender bias during her science studies. In the United Kingdom, where she took a master's degree in physics before pursuing a thesis in the same subject, she was one of the few women in her class. "When you go on to science academia it's worse. No one is doing anything about it," exasperates Dr. Wade, who educates female students about science majors whenever she has the opportunity to speak at the university, "It's important for these young girls to see that women are in important positions in science."

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For her contributions, Jessica Wade is the recipient of numerous awards. "I will continue to do whatever I can to be a part of the recognition that women are owed. Their names need to be written down and honored," she says, as she leaves us, eager to get back to her online war. She still has some 1,548,096 biographies to write.