Encyclopedic Equality: The Fight To Eliminate Wikipedia's Gender Bias

As countless important women remain unrecognized in their fields, a collection of campaign groups are springing up to fight to fight that

At a Wikipedia Art+Feminism edit-a-thon
At a Wikipedia Art+Feminism edit-a-thon
Monica Hesse

WASHINGTON — Nearly everything I know about Martha Mendoza, I learned from her Wikipedia page, which, as of a few weeks ago, did not exist. Mendoza is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Her series about forced labor in the seafood industry led to the freeing of 2,000 enslaved Southeast Asian fisherman; because of her articles, Congress passed legislation requiring more transparency from food suppliers.

Her work is important and forceful. The absurd lack of recognition for her contributions on a Wikipedia page could have been for a lot of reasons; but it might have been related to one in particular: only about 18 percent of Wikipedia's biographical articles are about women. That's up 3 percent from a few years ago, according to the Wikimedia Foundation. But it's still a reflection of the fact that, "contributors are majority Western and mostly male, and these gatekeepers apply their own judgment and prejudices," the foundation wrote.

So, grass-roots organizations have set about trying to change the ratio. Groups such as Art+Feminism sponsor regular "edit-a-thons," to train more diverse groups of Wikipedia editors, and to publish a broader range of articles.

Martha Mendoza's article was created by Mintaro Oba, a Washington, D.C.-based speechwriter whose colleagues at West Wing Writers recently decided to launch a side project: making more Wikipedia articles about women. As writers themselves, they opted to focus on authors, journalists and poets.

"Most male journalists who have two Pulitzers have Wikipedia pages," Oba notes. So when he learned about Mendoza, he wanted to make sure his submission was approved. He backed up the article with an "epic onslaught of credible sources," to craft an airtight argument for her inclusion.

Most male journalists who have two Pulitzers have Wikipedia pages.

Coming up on Women's History Month - and in the middle of Black History Month - I've been thinking a lot about the phrase "rewriting history," and how it's almost always presented as a negative or an impossible. You can't rewrite history, proponents of the Confederate flag say to those who want to take it down.

And yet so much of progress requires doing exactly that: rewriting history. Digging out new sources. Making our collective encyclopedia bigger.

Last year, the New York Times launched a project titled "Overlooked," which retroactively writes obituaries for forgotten people - women and people of color whose deaths were not considered historic enough for obituaries when they happened. This month, among others: a children's welfare advocate who helped more than 500 mixed-race orphans find homes after World War II and a clothing designer who outfitted Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt.

Half of progress is about recognizing women whose accomplishments were, as the Times puts it, "overlooked." But I think the other half of progress is something we consider even less: reframing our understanding of accomplishments. Asking ourselves to interrogate what events are important and questioning what counts as history at all.

One of Oba's colleagues, Ilana Ross, who spearheaded the company's Wikipedia project, told me the group had tried to submit a Wikipedia article on the New Zealand writer Alison Waley, but it was rejected. She showed me a screenshot of the rejection. Perhaps, it posited, Waley could just be part of her husband's Wikipedia article instead?


Mendoza, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, previously did not have a Wikipedia page — Photo: Khairil Yusof

It was complicated, Ross said, because Waley's most famous work was, in fact, a memoir about life with her husband. He was a noted translator whom Waley had known for years, though they only married shortly before his death. While Arthur was receiving public accolades for public work, Alison was cataloguing the private, quotidian parts of life: portraits of time, place, parties and people.

But wasn't that also valuable? Ross asked. Weren't those things also important contributions to history - a way of understanding how people lived and what the world looked like?

History can be rewritten. History can be rewritten, because it doesn't have to be contained in pages anymore, and the potential for expansion is unlimited. And because doing it better the second time around shows that we've learned from our incomplete job the first time.

I emailed Martha Mendoza a few days ago. She didn't know she had a Wikipedia page until I told her. And while she was pleased with it - it's a good, factual article, she said - her reasons didn't have anything to do with honor or recognition. She simply thought having one would make her job easier. Now, when she approached a source for a story and asked for an interview, she could direct them to her page to prove she was a real journalist, and to help them understand the kind of reporting she did.

For that reason, she'd wanted a page for a while. "I thought about asking someone to do it for me," she said. "But it's a little like asking someone to enter you in a contest."

It seemed unseemly and self-aggrandizing to her; she couldn't imagine actually suggesting it. She was glad she hadn't needed to, and that someone else had seen her.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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