Wikipedia entry too long? Just get rid of the women

Wikipedia decided that the American Novelist category was becoming too long and moved the female authors to a new page named American Women Novelists.

Did you notice this? The volunteer editors of Wikipedia decided that the American Novelist category was becoming too long and decided to move the female authors to a new page named American Women Novelists.

This little change may not have been discussed or even noticed, if it wasn’t for Amanda Filipacchi who discovered the change and wondered how come there weren’t two pages created, one for American Male Novelists and one for American Women Novelists. She wrote an Op-Ed about it for the New York Times and shortly after, that’s exactly what happened.

So you would think then that this was just an honest mistake. The editors of Wikipedia just weren’t sensitive to how wrong it is to qualify books by the gender of the author. But it doesn’t end here.

As Filipacchi describes in a NYT follow-up article, her Wikipedia page was altered. In twenty-four hours, there were 22 changes. Links to outside sources like interviews and reviews were removed. The link to the Op-Ed disappeared. Before this, her page had been changed 22 times over a period of four years. Much wiki-cyber bullying later and Filipacchi’s back on the list of American Novelists, but says, “Taking women’s names off the list of American novelists makes it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.”

To me, the Wikipedia incident is just another example that shows we still have work to do before women gain full equality, not just in the literary world, but everywhere.

My office at work is in a cluster of six with a student study area in the middle. The day after I’d heard about Filipacchi’s articles, I passed by the whiteboard in the study part and saw an old joke I first encountered years ago while I was a physics undergraduate student. Here’s the joke:

Variables: W = Women, T = Time, M = Money, E = Evil
W = TM [Women equal Time and Money]
T = M [Time is Money]
W = M^2 [Substituting Money for Time, Women now equal Money squared]
M = E^(1/2) [Money is the root of all evil]
W = E^(2/2) [Substituting Evil for Money, Women equal the root of Evil squared]
W = E [Simplifying the root of Evil squared, Women are Evil]

Clever and funny, in a nerdy way, right?

And yet every time I see it, as an undergraduate and now, I’m uneasy. Why would someone think it is okay to put this in an area that is used by both female and male students? In an area where two of the offices are occupied by scientists who are also women?

I erased the proof off the board.

The guys who wrote the joke were unfortunate enough to show up later, while I was still in my office. As they showed off their wit to a third male friend by rewriting the joke, I left my desk to speak with them. What surprised me most about our conversation was that one of the guys insisted that there was nothing offensive about the joke. He kept defending it even after I’d explained that the study area was supposed to be welcoming to students of both genders, so jokes like this were not allowed. He insisted that girls his generation (and yes, I did grind my molars at this point) would understand that it was a joke.

When I asked him if he would put the same joke on the board if instead of women it was about an ethnic minority, he said, “Of course not.”

At this point, his buddies shook their heads and looked down on the floor.

I get it, I really do. It’s just a joke. These guys do not consider women inferior. They often study with female students. The conversations I overhear are respectful and friendly. And yet, they think it is okay to post a joke which demeans females, because women are treated as inferiors all the time in literature, in movies, and in the news. We are so used to it that we don’t notice it anymore.

Many times, like maybe with the Wikipedia American Novelist page, it is not meant to be a demeaning thing, but when women’s accomplishments are considered different just because it was a female who performed it, how could it not be?