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2 minutes to read Posted on Wednesday March 6, 2019

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Emily D’Alterio

Emily D’Alterio

Former Editorial & PR Officer , Europeana Foundation

Women in culture and tech: Isla Haddow-Flood and Florence Devouard of Wiki Loves Women

Today we hear from esteemed wiki leaders and Wikipedians Isla Haddow-Flood and Florence Devouard as they tackle the gender (digital) content gap and advocate for and promote the contributions of women and girls to our digital archives and media spaces.

main image
Initiation? ceremony, Magdalenian. Nine partially clothed women and one young man.
Wellcome Collection
United Kingdom

About Isla...

A Zimbabwean by birth and a Capetonian by adoption, Oxford-educated Isla Haddow-Flood is a writer, editor and project strategist who is passionate about harnessing communication technology and media platforms for the advancement of open access to knowledge; specifically, knowledge that relates to and enhances the understanding of Africa via the Open Movement (and especially Wikipedia).

About Florence...

A Wikipedian since 2002, former Chair of Wikimedia Foundation and a founding member of Wikimedia France, Florence Devouard was born in France where she currently lives. She is a public speaker and consultant. Above everything, she loves to share her knowledge of new practices and online communities. She cares for language diversity and multicultural dialogue and is a supporter of the open-source and free knowledge movement. 

About Wiki Loves Women...

In 2016, Florence and Isla developed and ran Wiki Loves Women (a content liberation project related to African Women), Wikipack Africa (an action kit for Wikipedians across Africa), WikiFundi (an offline editing environment that mimics Wikipedia), WikiAfrica Schools, and WikiChallenge African Schools (both projects introduce the next generation of editors to Wikipedia).

Can you tell me about Wiki Loves Women?

Isla and Florence: On the surface, Wiki Loves Women is a content creation and aggregation project that is and has been operating in six countries in East and West Africa (and beyond). At its heart, the project is a way of developing the skills and capacity of the local volunteer groups whilst working on several acknowledged gaps in both content and participation: subjects relating to and relevant for women from Africa; and contribution from Wikipedians across Africa.

From a content point of view, only 0.318% of all biographical entries on Wikidata (the data repository for the Wikimedia projects) are about African women. On Wikipedia, of all biographies about African people, only 17.9% are about women. With regards to contributions - less than 20% of (all) Wikipedia contributors are female (the global community has long-acknowledged the gender gap as a problem). But in sub-Saharan Africa, when combined with the contributor gap - ‘only 25% of edits to subjects about the Sub-Saharan region come from within the region’. This lack of information about women online across the continent is also reflected in the mainstream media. Wiki Loves Women works to draw attention to this societal imbalance.

The Wiki Loves Women project encourages the contribution of content (articles, images, data) that celebrates women of excellence, highlights issues, and reflects the daily realities faced by women and girls across Africa. The teams of Wikipedians in the six countries (Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda) work with civil society and gender equality organisations to contribute freely-licensed information, texts, images and media to Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.

How did you get into your current field?

Florence: 20 years ago, I loved playing a video game called Alpha Centauri. And I was sometimes going online to read game tips on discussion forums (they were not so numerous online back in 2000ies). Whilst chatting with another English-speaking Canadian player, he introduced me to the very newborn Wikipedia,(less than a year old back then) and obviously totally unknown. It took me over a month to dare do my first edit. Then I fell into it and never got out. Initially,  completely volunteer-based and anonymous, I soon joined or launched non-profits related to that field, and I later came to see it as my main professional activity.

Isla: My academic training was in the fine arts, but since University (too many years ago to still seem relevant) the core of my work has been finding ways to use communication, the arts and written content to shift the negative perceptions of Africa globally, as well as challenging our self-defeating perceptions from within the continent. Being introduced to WikiAfrica in 2011 by Iolanda Pensa seemed to be a culmination of all the work I had been doing previously. I love the work we do. It is important and has become a guiding element in a definite shift in perception both on the continent and globally.

What are the challenges for women in the workforce today? What can be done to improve matters?

Isla: My experience is based on the African continent and varies from country to country and industry to industry. In my experience, although an amazing amount of progress has been made with regards to equal opportunities for women in the workforce across Africa, and despite the not-perfect positive discrimination efforts in southern Africa, there remains a definite paternalistic, male-oriented focus across all industries. It is a mindset that is very insidious and difficult to shake.

Isla: Women in the Wikimedia movement - Conversations with women in Africa, 22 July 2018, Kritzolina | WikiIndaba18, 18 March 2018, Fayçal Rezkallah, CC BY-SA 4.0
Isla: Women in the Wikimedia movement - Conversations with women in Africa, 22 July 2018, Kritzolina | WikiIndaba18, 18 March 2018, Fayçal Rezkallah, CC BY-SA 4.0

Florence: Very vast topic. I believe that the first challenge women meet is the amount of free labour they provide, most often in the area of care (of the child, of the sick, of the one with disabilities, of the elder, of the poor…). They develop unrecognised, non-compensated expertise that has huge value for the wider society, yet goes under the radar, not counted as work (or tagged ‘volunteer work’). In such cases, the women are not considered part of the workforce (even though the volunteer hours are sometimes counted as ‘in kind’ by organisations), not covered by laws meant to protect 'official' workers, and they do not get the usual benefits associated with a job position that would help them on the path of empowerment and self-sustainability.

This link exemplifies this point. For example, it states that: ‘Women bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work with women spending around 2.5 times more time on unpaid care and domestic work than men. And it is estimated that if women’s unpaid work were assigned a monetary value, it would constitute between 10 per cent and 39 per cent of GDP.'

Do you feel that women are sufficiently empowered and present in leadership positions?

Isla: In some ways, this pervasive maleness has fed into the mindsets kinds of people who are interested in working within the tech/content volunteer sector. It takes a special mix of people to work as volunteers within the Wikimedia movement. Initially, volunteer groups have been fairly male-dominated and led, but with the development and progress of Wiki Loves Women within the six countries we have seen a definite change in the gender balance and the notable empowerment of women within the groups as their confidence and skills grew. For example, the project within three of the first four countries was initially led by men, because there was a scarcity of women within their groups who had the skills and confidence to run such a demanding project. Now the groups are vastly different. Wiki Loves Women has been enormously positive in this aspect within the groups - shining a light on the issue, and providing the means and opportunities to empower women and gender-sensitised men within the groups.

Florence: Unfortunately not, at least in my country (France). But there are huge variations depending on the activity sector. The Wikimedia community suffers from a gender gap not only in terms of content but also in terms of contributors since we estimate that less than 20% of participants to Wikipedia are women. There are several reasons given, some being external (women would have less free time to volunteer), some being internal to our movement (editing community considered by some to be overly sexist).

However, in many countries, some of the participants created groups, incorporated or not, to support our movement, and we observe that many leaders of those organizations (volunteer Chairs or paid Executive Directors) are women. When it comes to the Wikimedia Foundation, the host organization of Wikipedia, women are clearly in leadership positions. There have been several women in the Chair of the Board position (I was myself the second Wikimedia Foundation Chair immediately after Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia) and except for a brief interim male director when the WMF was fairly young, all of the Executive Directors (three since the WMF creation in 2003) have been women. What’s the secret formula? I do not know.

L: Florence Devouard - Wikiindaba17, 21 January 2017, Owula kpakpo | R: Isla Haddow-Flood - African meetup at Wikimedia Conference in April 2018, Open Foundation West Africa, CC BY-SA 4.0
L: Florence Devouard - Wikiindaba17, 21 January 2017, Owula kpakpo | R: Isla Haddow-Flood - African meetup at Wikimedia Conference in April 2018, Open Foundation West Africa, CC BY-SA 4.0

What message would you share with women in the sector today?

Isla and Florence: Successful women in Africa are often reticent about putting themselves forward; celebrating their achievements, or claiming their share of the spotlight. Further, they are neither supported by the media. There are many reasons for this, but they should remember that being in the spotlight helps to inspire the next generation of women across Africa … they are role models. And this is a responsibility that they should not ignore.

What digital communities or networks do you find rewarding?

Florence: I would love to belong to more networks than I currently do. My main current networks are Wikimedia networks, to a lesser extent social entrepreneurs networks, and open source local networks (for example, in Marseille AoïLibre bring together all regional open source organisations and movement) that foster a powerful and positive mindset.

Isla: My networks are rather biased - Wikimedians and Creative Commoners across Africa.

Who (or what) inspires you at the moment?

Florence: In 2018 I joined an existing French-speaking initiative, les sans pagEs, and created a sub-group in my region, called les sans pagEs Méditerranée, which aims to reduce the gender gap in the Mediterranean area. What I like about its approach is first that it tries to be very pragmatic and focus on production of content and second that it places gender diversity as a central element of its activities rather than ‘“women”’, and this allows a more nuanced approach.

Isla: I am particularly inspired by intrepid teachers, educators and gender activists across Africa, especially people like Nigeria’s Betty Abah (CC-Hope) and Runcie Chidebe (Project Pink and Blue). I have also been working with Wendy Abrahams at the Sozo Foundation in Vrygrond, an after-school project with underprivileged children in Cape Town. These are the true heroes!

Want more? Visit our exhibition Pioneers which highlights the lives and achievements of historical European women. Visit the full list of profiles for the Women in Culture and Technology series - we publish three profiles per week throughout March.