Academic writes 270 Wikipedia pages in a year to get female scientists noticed
Jess Wade is a scientist on a mission. She wants every woman who has achieved something impressive in science to get the prominence and recognition they deserve – starting with a Wikipedia entry.
“I’ve done about 270 in the past year,” says Wade, a postdoctoral researcher in the field of plastic electronics at Imperial College London’s Blackett Laboratory. “I had a target for doing one a day, but sometimes I get too excited and do three.”
That science doesn’t attract enough girls and has ground to make up in supporting and celebrating its women can feel like a tired refrain in academia. But Wade’s approach is refreshing and infectious.
“I kind of realised we can only really change things from the inside,” she says. “Wikipedia is a really great way to engage people in this mission because the more you read about these sensational women, the more you get so motivated and inspired by their personal stories.”
Wade went to an all-girls school and, with both her parents being doctors, science was a backdrop to her childhood. She does not recall encountering barriers on her way to gaining a place to study physics as an undergraduate at Imperial. When she started, the course was so tough and she was so focused on doing well, it barely registered that there weren’t many girls around.
It was only as a PhD student that she was struck by how being in a minority can shape day-to-day experiences. “Being isolated is hard – this goes for all underrepresented groups,” she says. “Then there are all those challenges during your PhD that amplify that isolation. If you don’t have anyone you can really get on with around you it’s so, so hard.”
Wade started giving talks at schools and became engaged in outreach to encourage girls to take up science, but quickly became frustrated with much of the work going on under the “women in science” banner.
The projected messages often felt fundamentally negative, such as the “9% is not enough” tagline of a 2016 campaign by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
“If I heard something was only 9% of girls when I was at school I would’ve been, ‘Like, no’,” says Wade. Worse still was the European commission’s bungled attempt to give science a sexy, feminine makeover in its Science: it’s a girl thing! video, in which three young women prance around on a catwalk while decoding the chemical composition of lipsticks and nail varnish.
“It infuriates me that even for a blink of an eyelid they think that kind of thing will change anything,” Wade tells me through gritted teeth.
Many of the initiatives are backed by a significant amount of funding – Wade estimates £4m to £5m is spent annually on women in science outreach, with big contributions from banks and engineering firms as well as the government. “It’s not just a few academics going out and doing talks in schools, it’s huge investments of money,” she says. Yet there appeared to be little or no evaluation as to whether the projects had achieved their aims – and the evidence was not encouraging.
In the UK, the percentage of female A-level physics students has stagnated at about 21% for the past decade and for computing the proportion of A-level students who are female is just 10%”. In Britain, fewer than 9% of professional engineers are women – a figure that is among the worst globally and which has not increased in the past decade. A recent study suggests it would take 258 years to close the gender gap in physics, based on current rates of progress.
There’s so much energy, enthusiasm and money going into all these initiatives to get girls into science,” she says. “Absolutely none of them is evidence-based and none of them work. It’s so unscientific, that’s what really surprises me.”
Wade began to look into what had been shown to work best: speaking to parents and teachers, for instance, rather than just focusing solely on pupils. After seeing the reach achieved by uploading scientific images on to Wikimedia Commons, the free photo-sharing site, she decided to do the same for scientists themselves.
Professor Kim Cobb, a US climate scientist, was her first subject. “She’s super interesting, she does really cool research on corals and she goes diving to collect samples,” she says. Soon after, Wade went to a talk by Susan Goldberg, editor of National Geographic (the first woman to hold this post), who noticed she too lacked a Wikipedia entry. “I thought ‘That’s outrageous’, so I did her page,” she says. Since then she has done hundreds more.
As we weave our way through a labyrinthine intersection between Imperial’s physics and maths buildings, Wade greets a colleague before turning to me to say: “That’s Emma McCoy, the first woman to be a professor of maths here. I made her page.”
There are inevitable critics of the project. Last week she received a message on Twitter from an Oxford PhD student accusing her of using Wikipedia to self-promote and publicise friends. “This is not what Wikipedia is about!” he wrote. “Think about the … damage you’re causing to the Wiki community!”
She says she “knew he was wrong” but still had a wobble. However, she was met with a surge of online support. And Wade’s subjects, none of whom she had met personally before writing their entry, have been almost universally thrilled. “Professors feel really empowered when they’ve got one,” she says.
Wade’s activism is not limited to online. After reading Angela Saini’s 2017 book, Inferior, which applies scientific scrutiny to claims of sex differences and gender stereotypes, Wade started distributing copies. “I realised that this kind of bias has been penetrating through society for so long,” she says. “Ever since Darwin’s time women have been fighting back. I suddenly realised I can do this: I can change it and I can make sure other people read this too.”
She estimates she has bought and handed out 60 or 70 copies of the book, to friends, family and fellow scientists at international conferences. “About a week ago, Angela said, You’ve got to stop buying them’, and sent me 10 signed copies,” she says, before insisting I leave with a copy.
She relentlessly nominates other women for prizes, including Emma Chapman, an astrophysicist at Imperial, who was awarded the Royal Society’s Athena prize last week, and when I meet her she is surrounded by a huddle of girls on work experience who are shadowing her that day.
What does she ultimately hope to achieve? “I guess it’s to make science a better place for everyone working in it, which happens when we recognise the contributions of these awesome women,” she says. “Then the girls who do come – because they will! – will come to a much more empowering environment.”
Article first appeared in the Guardian, July 2018