Women’s History Month: Gender and Digital Knowledge Justice

Dr Naomi Wells
Senior Lecturer in Italian and Spanish with Digital Humanities, School of Advanced Study

Particularly in academia, we are now well aware of the ways women have been marginalised or excluded from historical knowledge institutions and as authors and artists. I can in fact remember as a child asking my granny why she only read novels written by women, to which she memorably replied that men had been read by more than enough people.

As we turn to our contemporary knowledge infrastructures, and in particular the digital world, it might be appealing to imagine – as perhaps the early founders of the internet envisioned – that the situation has changed. Wikipedia, in particular, would appear to be accessible to anyone to create and edit entries of their choice, seemingly removing many of the gatekeepers of traditional knowledge infrastructures. However, as the Whose Knowledge? foundation has highlighted in their work on public online knowledge, it is overwhelmingly white male editors in the Global North who edit the majority of Wikipedia’s content, with a 2018 survey finding less than 10% of editors identified as female.

Developments in Artificial Intelligence further remind us of the importance of continuing to focus our attention on gender and other forms of bias, particularly with the rapidly expanding uses of AI chatbots such as ChatGPT. The AI researcher Timnit Gebru was for example forced to leave Google after co-authoring a paper which described these technologies as ‘stochastic parrots’ that encode and reinforce existing gender and racial biases and stereotypes.

The work of Whose Knowledge? and Gebru remind us of the importance of addressing the ways gender intersects with race, nationality, class and also language when seeking to understand the forms of marginalisation and bias that operate in the digital world. While gender has never been the primary focus of my own research, the month of March (when both International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month take place) is a valuable time to be reminded to follow my granny’s early advice to pay attention to the women across the world whose words are not being read on paper or on the screen and to better understand the reasons why.

Dr Naomi Wells is a Senior Lecturer in Italian and Spanish with Digital Humanities at the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies and the Digital Humanities Research Hub at the School of Advanced Study. Her current research focuses on the Internet and social media, particularly in relation to online multilingualism. She is also Co-Director of the School of Advanced Study’s Doctoral Centre.

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