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Janeen Uzzell on empowering women and fighting biases on Wikipedia

Written by Julianna Wu Published on 

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Wikipedia strives to have content creators from diverse backgrounds, says Uzzel, COO of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Janeen Uzzell is the COO for the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization that hosts Wikipedia. Before that, she served at General Electric for over ten years as director of Healthcare Programs in Africa and head of Women in Technology, where she led initiatives to address gender imbalances while also promoting technology and healthcare among people in need.

KrASIA (Kr): What is the Wikimedia Foundation?

Janeen Uzzell (JU):  The Wikimedia Foundation runs the Wikipedia platform and other sister products that are part of Wikipedia. The community consists of over 280,000 volunteers all over the world. They build and grow the content on Wikipedia.

A corner of Wikimedia Foundation’s office in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Saroj Dhakal.

Kr: Throughout your career, how have you stayed true to your motto of fighting biases? 

JU: I strongly advocate diversity of thought and the influence of women in every space—particularly in technology, as I am an engineer. Women want to be heard. We want our skills and talents to be leveraged. We want safety.

Bringing a diverse voice for and of women into the workspace makes an incredible difference to the products that I design. In the efforts I’ve led, we not only ensure that we have strong women’s voices and that we have more articles on women, but that we also have a diverse and creative thought in all the work we do. Our staff is very diverse, and that makes for a more robust foundation.

Kr: Why is it important to promote diversity among Wikipedia’s contributors? 

JU: Wikipedia is a product that serves the world, and therefore, it needs to be the voice of the world. You cannot have a small percentage of the world trying to tell a global story. We have to broaden Wikipedia’s perspective, so the experiences of minorities are accounted for. Every reader must receive a perspective that is multidimensional, not one-sided. Diversity in creators is what makes that happen.

Kr: What has Wikimedia been doing to encourage diversity in the community? 

JU: We’re focused on ensuring that our product experience is accessible on all platforms so that creators can work in whichever circumstances are best for them. We’re creating a movement that serves our editors, which aligns with our mission of including anyone who wants to be part of our community, with or without a computer. The biggest challenge is bringing in people because they often think they can’t be a part of the creator community.

A movement strategy discussion at WikiConference North America 2016. Photo courtesy of Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

We’ve introduced a universal code of conduct across all our projects, which lists a set of fundamental standards that must be provided to our global communities with a baseline for acceptable behavior. This is so that creators don’t feel like they’re being locked out when they try to join Wikipedia.

Kr: How does Wikimedia handle sensitive cultural or social topics? 

JU: Our community assumes good faith as we lead operations. We practice reaching a consensus on most of the decisions we make. When there are controversial topics, there are discussions on how to reach a consensus, which is how we resolve some of the conflicts. These discussions involve affiliates and leaders. It’s important to have a diverse group so that our consensus is not biased. Building a diverse range of affiliates in terms of gender and culture is something we’ve been working on.

Kr: How do you handle gender bias and promoting more women’s voices in Wikipedia content? 

JU: Currently, only around 20% of our editing community identifies as women. Only 18% of the articles on Wikipedia are about women. We don’t have enough women or enough people writing about women, not just in Wikipedia, but in other media outlets as well. It’s a gap that exists in news and information globally.

Wikipedia is doing several things to increase gender diversity in our media projects. We’ve noticed an increase in women editors and contributors, mostly in Africa, Latin America, and North America. We have different groups that are focused on writing about different topics centered around women.

Group photo at WikiConference India 2016. Photo courtesy of Afifa Afrin.

Kr: Any tips for those who would like to join Wikipedia’s community as contributors? 

JU: Start small. Find a topic that interests you, and start by editing small grammatical errors or adding resources for citations. Don’t start with writing an entire article because that can be nerve-racking. If you’re interested in being a part of our community, we welcome you.

Kr: Is there anything you would change on your own Wikipedia page? 

JU: Probably my picture. I know that sounds so vain, but I don’t like my hair in that picture. But I’ve only seen it once and never went back to look at it again.

WRITTEN BY

Julianna Wu

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