‘We’re writing history’: Spanish women tackle Wikipedia’s gender gap

<span>Patricia Horrillo (front left with blue hair) and the group gathered in a back room of Madrid’s La Fabulosa bookstore.</span><span>Photograph: Denis Doyle/The Guardian</span>
Patricia Horrillo (front left with blue hair) and the group gathered in a back room of Madrid’s La Fabulosa bookstore.Photograph: Denis Doyle/The Guardian

Packed into the back room of a feminist bookshop in Madrid, 17 women hunched over their laptops, chatting and laughing as they passed around snacks. Every now and then a hearty burst of applause punctuated the sound of typing, each time marking a milestone as the group steadily chipped away at what is perhaps one of the world’s most pervasive gender gaps.

Just under a fifth of Wikipedia’s content, including biographies, is focused on women, while women account for just about 15% of the site’s volunteer editors. “The numbers are pretty terrifying,” said Patricia Horrillo, who for much of the past decade has spent her spare time working to tackle this gap, cultivating a community of Wikipedia editors dedicated to publishing content focused on women.

The result is Spain’s Wikiesfera, one of a handful of groups around the world – from Whose Knowledge? in the US to Italy’s WikiDonne and Switzerland’s Les Sans Pages – that have sprung up to address Wikipedia’s gender balance.

It is something that has long been recognised by the Wikimedia Foundation, the organisation that hosts Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is powered by humans, so it is vulnerable to human biases,” the foundation says. “It is also a reflection of the structural and historical inequalities women experience around the world.”

Wikipedia has historically been edited by more men than women, all of whom rely on existing published sources to verify the facts in its articles, the foundation notes. “But in many places around the world, women have been left out of historical narratives and traditional sources of knowledge.”

In recent years the foundation has provided support to groups such as Horrillo’s Wikiesfera, offering them a helping hand as they seek to right this imbalance. “For the first time, civil society has the power to make women visible,” Horrillo said. “History has always been told by those in power – now we have that power.”

It was this belief that led more than a dozen women to cram into Madrid’s La Fabulosa bookstore to spend a sunny Saturday creating and translating Wikipedia entries about women in art.

“We’re writing history today, right here,” said Encina Villanueva, who has been attending Wikiesfera’s events since 2016. Sometimes she writes up original content for Wikipedia pages on women, other times she nips into existing pages to balance out texts that prioritise women’s appearance or their links to prominent men over their achievements.

She’s often watched in awe as her sentences ricochet across the internet. “Over the years I’ve seen lines that I wrote used all over the place, repeated over and over in articles,” she said. “The influence you have is tremendous.”

Sitting next to her was Celia Hernández-García, who was crafting a page dedicated to a work of art by María Blanchard, a Spanish painter who in the early 1900s developed a singular style of cubism.

Hernández-García, a secondary school teacher, began attending Wikiesfera events in 2017 after reading about the group online. “As soon as I saw it, I thought this is my place,” she said.

For years she had scrambled to cobble together female-focused content for her students, hoping to offer them a glimpse of the achievements of women that were all too often lacking in textbooks. “At one point I sat down with a textbook and went through all the references of men and women – the difference was mind-blowing.”

She showed up to her first Wikiesfera activity with zero technological skills. “I didn’t know anything,” she said with a laugh. “Patricia has a lot of patience.”

It’s a nod to the kind of community Horrillo is aiming to create. The seeds of Wikiesfera were planted one decade earlier when she was working in a cultural centre and became fascinated by the question of why people weren’t contributing more to sites such as Wikipedia. As she began to ask around, the answers hinted at barriers that were far greater than technological knowhow. “One woman told me: ‘But who am I to write history?’”

The sentiment led Horrillo to launch Wikiesfera, envisioning it as a support group that could help people as they wrestled with doubts over what kinds of content to write and how to go about it. The focus on women emerged in parallel as Horrillo seized on the idea of tackling Wikipedia’s gender gap, allowing her to merge her passions of technology and activism.

While the organisation’s activities are open to men and women of all ages, those who show up most often are women between the ages of 40 and mid-60s. “These are women who have time, often they don’t have children or dependants,” said Horrillo. “It’s an important point because this is one of the reasons that there are so few women editors – it takes a lot of time.”

Studies over the years have highlighted other reasons that women remain marginalised on the site, from the lack of reliable sources that have documented women’s achievements throughout history to the suggestion that women’s biographies are more likely to be nominated for deletion.

Still, Horrillo is resolute in her push to add women to one of the world’s most visited sites. “What we’re doing is super important because there’s nothing like Wikipedia,” she said.

Saturday’s marathon session saw a total of 33 articles added to Wikipedia, ranging from a page about a sculpture by Luisa Roldán, Spain’s earliest documented female sculptor, to a Spanish-language translation on an artwork by Marie Bracquemond, one of the notable women in the impressionist movement.

Each of the entries was, in the words of Horrillo, a small, tangible step towards tackling the formidable structures that have long worked to keep most women invisible. “You have to start somewhere. It’s a way to fight injustice, but without being overwhelmed,” she said. “If you start to ask what can I do to change the world, the answer is a bit complicated. But this is something that is within our grasp.”