Promoting Diversity In STEM Online
In this blog, authors Mackenzie Lemieux and Rebecca Zhang examine how we can better promote diversity in STEM online, with a focus on using Wikipedia to increase the representation of women in STEM and inspire the next generation of scientists.
Mackenzie embarked on a project to write a Wikipedia page each day for a woman in STEM, and Rebecca saw these pages as a beacon for her graduate school mentor search.
In the below conversation, Mackenzie and Rebecca discuss how they discovered Wikipedia could be used to increase the representation of women in STEM, and leave a lasting impact on current and future generations of STEM leaders.
Addressing underrepresentation in STEM
“Would you like to go to the moon?”
“Yes,” the young aspiring astronaut stated.
“Do you think you will?”
“No,” she sighed.
“Because I’m not a boy.”
Because I’m not a boy? When I heard this conversation in an interview clip last July, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, I felt a chill run down my spine. To this young girl, the concept of an astronaut did not include women or girls. Sadly, this is true for most people. The notion of a scientist, a mathematician, a surgeon, or an engineer does not often include women, and even less so minority women.
Gender biases and stereotypes are pervasive in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM). These gender biases and stereotypes are well-documented across career stages from admissions processes, to postdoctoral salaries, to faculty hiring and promotions, to scientific publishing, even to patient-peer and peer-peer treatment on medical wards. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the barriers due to gender biases have been exacerbated. Women contribute to the majority of front-line work in addition to bearing the brunt of childcare and chores at home. The tangible and obvious impact of gender bias continues to make women leave their careers at a disproportionate rate. This results in the underrepresentation of women, especially minority women, in STEM.
To lessen the barriers that women face, policy changes need to be enacted at institutional and at all governmental levels. Alongside these initiatives, the STEM community should be harnessing opportunities to highlight women, amplify their voices, and bring attention to their contributions to innovation.
We chose to focus on using Wikipedia and social media as tools to increase the recognition and amplify the voices of women in STEM. Improving the online presence of women in STEM can positively impact the representation and career trajectories of women, and shape history to include the narratives of all its contributors.
The Changing Role Of The Internet And The Importance Of Online Presence
To understand the need to strive for equal and sufficient representation of scientists online, it is important to acknowledge the impressive impact that the Internet has had in shaping our habits and biases.
Over the past few decades, digital technology has greatly enhanced our ability to store, transmit, and process information (in fact, many of these contributions were made by women, emphasizing the importance of seeking equal representation of female scientists online). As a result, there has been a dramatic global increase in the use of the internet and internet-related technologies over the past decade. For many of us, the Internet has become an important source of information. One of the most well-known sources of information – and in 2020 the 2nd most visited internet site – is Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia and open collaboration project maintained by a community of volunteer editors and moderators.
Most students use Wikipedia or other online encyclopedias to do research for school papers . It’s pretty likely that you have found yourself going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole at least once in the past month. It is actually quite hard to imagine what a world would look like without the effortless and immediate access to vast amounts of information.
The popularization of Internet research, especially for professional and academic uses, has led to the concept of “online presence”. Online presence refers to locations on the internet where an entity (in our case a person) is represented. It encompasses the Wikipedia pages, personal websites, social media, news articles, and institutional pages featuring one’s work and career status. Though sculpting an online presence is common for business professionals, the curation of one’s professional information is not as widely implemented by STEM professionals. It is even less often implemented by late-career stage STEM professionals, exhibited by their lack of social media use or personal websites. Given the dramatic increase in Internet use, and its continued upward trend globally, the importance of the way in which professionals in STEM present themselves online will likely become an even more significant part of their career success in the future.
The rapidly evolving role of the Internet in professional life, combined with the historical underrepresentation of women in STEM, hinders the visibility of women in the scientific community. This is reflected by the abysmal representation of women in STEM on Wikipedia.
Only 18.39% of English Wikipedia biographies are about women, and many languages do not have any Wikipedia biographies for women. Women Nobel laureates, such as Donna Strickland, have had their Wikipedia pages declined for addition to Wikipedia, and even worse, Clarice Phelps had her page deleted, due to the perception that these women are not notable enough for recognition on Wikipedia due to a historical lack of recognition. When so few pages highlight women – especially minority women – as notable leaders in STEM fields, biases perpetuating the idea that women do not belong in these roles are strengthened.
With the rise of the Internet as an essential source of information, it is more important now than ever to harness this powerful tool to increase the presence of women in the STEM fields.
Adding women’s biographies to Wikipedia is an incredibly easy way to recognize women’s contributions to STEM and provide role models for the younger generation of scientists.
Wikipedia As A Platform To Increase Representation
Last year, I became inspired by a few women who were actively trying to address Wikipedia’s gender biases: Jess Wade of the United Kingdom, Maryam Zaringhalam of the United States, and Farah Qaiser of Canada. They had been creating Wikipedia pages for notable women as well as teaching their communities to create and edit Wikipedia pages for women through Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons. Since anyone can edit and create pages for Wikipedia, an edit-a-thon can empower the community with the skills to shape the content of Wikipedia. Following in the footsteps of Jess, Maryam, and Farah, I hosted a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon in San Diego with the goal of writing and editing pages for women in STEM to address systemic gender biases.
On September 7th 2019, I organized the inaugural Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. Over 100 community members attended to learn how to create and edit Wikipedia pages for women in STEM. At this event, we created 19 new pages, edited 45 existing pages, and within one week, our pages had over 12,000 views. Overwhelmingly positive feedback from my community prompted me to partner with the University of California San Diego Library and the University of San Diego Women’s Center to host another Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon for International Women’s Day. On March 7th 2020 we gathered at the library on UCSD’s campus to create more pages for women in STEM. This time, we created 44 new pages, edited over 100 articles, and in one month our pages were visited over 18.2 million times.
Seeing the impact in numbers had me excited, but the percentage of women’s biographies on English Wikipedia remains under 19%. So, at the beginning of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place directive on March 17th 2020, I made it my goal to create one Wikipedia page for a woman in STEM each day. I have been highlighting the pages via my Twitter account (@kenziel6) for the past 80 days so that the stories and voices of these women can be amplified.
I have written pages for women who have made incredible inventions and discoveries:
- Deblina Sarkar invented the world's thinnest (six-atom thick) quantum-mechanical transistor
- Sandra Degen was the first to characterize cDNA of the blood clotting gene pro-thrombin
- Julie Price developed a method to image amyloid beta plaques in the human brain to better diagnose neurodegenerative disease
When these women were notified about their pages, they were grateful yet surprised that they now had a Wikipedia page. These women are innovators, discoverers, and world leaders in their fields, so it only makes sense that they are introduced to the world through an online encyclopedia. The STEM community seemed to agree, since both men and women started contacting me to nominate their incredible female colleagues, mentors, and role models. I gladly add names to my ever-increasing list of notable women in STEM who need their achievements recognized and shared with the world through Wikipedia.
Since the recent global attention towards racialized police brutality revitalized by the tragic killing of George Floyd by a police officer, I have been solely writing pages for black women in STEM. Being at the intersection of two systems of oppression, black women have been severely underrepresented in STEM and their voices historically silenced. Though it is not a solution, these Wikipedia pages will help bring attention to the immense contributions black women have made, and continue to make, to scientific discovery and innovation.
While I see the personal impact that these Wikipedia pages have on the women I am writing for, I was unable to see the impact the pages had on young women in STEM. Then, a former lab mate and prospective graduate student (my co-author of this blog, Rebecca) reached out to me to explain how the pages were impacting her search for graduate mentors.
Perspective Of An Incoming Graduate Student
During this quarantine, I have had the chance to reflect on the importance of a professional online presence from the perspective of a PhD program applicant. Mackenzie’s contributions to Wikipedia not only highlighted the severity of the underrepresentation of women in STEM but also showed me the importance of providing online visibility to scientists who are historically underrepresented in the field. Many students including myself have been relying heavily on the Internet to do research on postgraduate programs. The current pandemic has made me even more dependent on online resources to conduct this search. Coming across Mackenzie’s contributions during NYC’s shelter-in-place has allowed me to realize the direct benefits that digital communication can have on establishing a better representation of women and other inadequately represented individuals in science.
When I first began my search for graduate programs, I was familiar with my research interests and the institutions that would be able to cultivate them. However, I quickly realized that making a personalized and comprehensive list of potential mentors is a daunting task. Most programs offered a lengthy list of current faculty, organized by department and research area. Some faculty within this list provided a link to their lab website, while others only had a handful of hits on Google. I kept a record of all the names of professors I was interested in, and not surprisingly, they were mostly either faculty from the same academic circle or faculty with a substantial amount of updated information online. The surprise, however, was checking Mackenzie’s Twitter page a few days later and discovering that I had overlooked the work of so many impressive women neuroscientists in those same institutions. I was astonished. Had I known about these scientists from my original search, I would have decided to keep certain graduate programs at the top of my list.
This moment taught me how useful a Wikipedia page could be, not only to the scientist herself, but also to her potential students. To learn about the disproportionate number of biographies for women on Wikipedia was disheartening for me, but the far-reaching impact of this disparity became obvious. Without the appropriate recognition, women in STEM have more barriers to career success, and young women aspiring to be in STEM have difficulty finding role models that look like them. I did not expect the online underrepresentation of women to have such a direct impact on my own experiences, but it did, and I am thankful to have learned about Mackenzie’s Wikipedia project.
In a world that is continually being transformed by the internet, it is imperative that academics make use of the potential that this avenue of communication has to offer. The widespread accessibility of the internet, by nature, encourages diversity, in that more knowledge than ever is obtainable to a person without regard to their race, gender, ethnicity, or social status. This gives current academics the opportunity, or arguably, the responsibility, to use the internet as a tool to promote diversity in STEM.
Mackenzie Lemieux is a research technician in the Tye Lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She will be starting her MD-PhD at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis this August, pursuing her graduate work in neuroimmunology. Mackenzie founded the advocacy initiative SAID in STEM while she was a technician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During her MD-PhD, she will continue hosting Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons and seminars through SAID in STEM. Outside of the lab, Mackenzie likes to be active and can be found running, cycling, and surfing (but she will be reducing her time spent surfing once she moves to Missouri due to the long commute to the ocean).
Follow Mackenzie on Twitter: @kenzieL6
Rebecca Zhang is a recent graduate of NY Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is a research assistant at the Likhtik Lab at CUr College, and has done research at the Tye Lab for two summers. Rebecca will go to Germany next year on a Fulbright US Student Research Grant to study with the Gogolla Group at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology. She will be applying to PhD programs this fall. Since moving back home at the start of NYC’s shelter-in-place, Rebecca has taken the position of family dishwasher. When not washing the dishes, Rebecca can be found doing lab-related work, playing Chopin, or sweeping the floor.
Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @r_bcca
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