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2 minutes to read Posted on Tuesday March 12, 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: Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, academic, Wikipedian and champion of 'impractical' girls

Last week we introduced you to the content gender gap - and today we introduce you to someone whose initiatives, work and inspirations have added hundreds of thousands of female stories to the Wikipedia platform. Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight is the Vice-president of the Wikimedia District of Columbia, a Visiting Scholar to Northeastern University and on the Board of Advisors for Women in Journalism. We talk about filling the gaps in female history and fighting for girls with impractical dreams.

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, 19 July 2015, VGrigas (WMF), CC BY-SA 3.0
Initiation? ceremony, Magdalenian. Nine partially clothed women and one young man.
Wellcome Collection
United Kingdom

Meet Dame Rosie (and her colourful life as a leader, academic, scholar and writer) ...

As an American Wikipedia editor, I’ve created almost 5,000 new articles. I founded the Wikipedia project on Women Writers in 2014. I also the co-founded Wikipedia’s Women in Red project in 2015. the multi-language initiative devoted to improving the representation of women on Wikipedia by increasing the number of women’s biographies and articles about women’s works and women’s issues. Women in Red also focuses on improving Wikipedia’s editor gender gap and applies measures to counteract Wikipedia’s harassment of women. I was named Wikimedian of the Year in 2016, and in the same year, was shortlisted for the GEM-TECH award by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)/United Nations Women for efforts in applying technology for women’s empowerment and digital inclusion. I co-authored my grandfather’s biography, ‘The Diplomatic Mission of Captain Dr David Albala’ (2018) and was knighted in the same year by the Republic of Serbia. I make my home in Nevada City, California where I march as Helen Taft in the Famous Marching Presidents and First Ladies section of the annual Constitution Day Parade.  

Rose Gojich Stephenson-Goodknight - Serbian knighthood (2018), By Rosiestep - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Rose Gojich Stephenson-Goodknight - Serbian knighthood (2018), By Rosiestep - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

What are you working on right now?

I started creating Wikipedia articles in 2007, the first being, Book League of America, a defunct US publisher whose books I collect; I’m a bibliophile. In the following years, I was quite eclectic in terms of topic areas, writing articles ranging from anthroponomy to geographical features and historical buildings. Since 2014, my focus has shifted to women’s biographies, primarily women writers and their works. In that year, I created WikiProject Women Writers, which focuses on women writers’ biographies, works written by women, and the organisations they have founded, such as newspapers, and so forth. We now have approximately 38,000 articles within our scope. I not only write the articles but support this editing community with business strategies regarding branding, categories, and so forth. Since 2017, I have been the Visiting Scholar at Northeastern University’s Women Writers Project. In this role, I have created 311 new Wikipedia articles (women writer biographies or articles about their works) and have improved an additional 129 articles. I’ve added 785,000 words to these articles through 10,400 edits, which have been viewed 1,030,000 times. In addition, I’ve uploaded 1,705 images to WikiCommons, the Wikimedia Foundation’s online repository of free-use images, sounds, and other media files.

I’m also working on the challenge of categorising the images which Women in Red participants have uploaded since our project was established in 2015. While we know which images were added to WikiCommons, until February 2019, they were not categorised or branded as being associated with Women in Red. Developing the branding strategy, structuring the online categories, and then ultimately tagging every image our folks have uploaded is time-consuming, but I’ve always taken the long-view with all things Wiki-related, and I can see the value of doing this now versus in 50 years time.

My team and I at WikiProject Women in Red rely on structured data and AI in areas ranging from lists of missing notable women to editor recruitment, and article assessment. Between July 2015, when Women in Red was founded, and December 2018, 92,000 new women’s biographies have been created on English Wikipedia by editors from around the world. Our editing community is online and gender-neutral; everyone is welcome. In addition to English Wikipedia, our community extends to 20 other language versions. As a community organiser, I focus on national and international strategies within the Wikimedia movement. For example, in 2017, I interviewed 65 gender diversity leaders for the Gender Diversity Mapping initiative, the first-ever coordinated by the Wikimedia Foundation. 

I speak about Wikipedia, Wikidata, and WikiCommons at large and small events, as my sons have told me, ‘You can’t write all the articles yourself, Mom; you have to inspire others.’

How did you get into your field?

In my undergraduate years, I wanted to be a Cultural Anthropologist but my father thought that wasn’t practical. He thought I would get married and raise children and that I might want to work part-time, so a more practical education in accounting or pharmacy would better suit me. After getting a Bachelor’s in management and an MBA, I worked in the healthcare industry for three decades. But that didn’t dampen my desire to do research about societies and cultures different from my own. Through Wikipedia, I could be that cultural anthropologist. Wikipedia’s main page has a section called ‘Did You Know?’ which features newly-written articles. Three months after I started writing Wikipedia articles, I got a notice that the article I created regarding the Kallawaya people of the Andes had been included in the ‘Did You Know’ section. I was so flattered and felt so honoured that something I wrote was noticed and included on English Wikipedia’s main page. It is, after all, the fifth most viewed website according to Alexa. This spurred me on to write more articles. When the 1,000 articles that I had worked on was added to the ‘Did You Know’ section, I wrote this comment to accompany it: 
Some of you know that I am a cultural anthropologist at heart. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Mead and study cultural anthropology at Barnard (my mom's alma mater) as Margaret did. I wanted to travel to Papua New Guinea and do research on its people as Margaret did. But my dad said 'no' to majoring in anthropology - he wanted something more practical for my university studies. So now, years later, I get to live the life of an armchair cultural anthropologist, writing articles about Goaribari Island and its cannibals. To all the girls out there with impractical dreams, this article is dedicated to you.

What are the challenges for women in the workforce today (in general or in your sector)? 

According to Wikimedia Foundation’s 2018 editor survey, only 9% of Wikipedia’s editors are women. Collier and Bear (2012) described various factors for this, including high levels of conflict in discussions, dislike of critical environments, and the lack of confidence in editing other contributors' work. Adrianne Wadewitz (2013) dispelled various assumptions facing women editors such as it’s the responsibility of women to fix sexism on Wikipedia, saying that Wikipedia’s systemic sexism lessens its legitimacy as a producer and organiser of knowledge; therefore, it is the responsibility of every Wikipedian to combat that sexism. The 2017 Gender Diversity Mapping project led to the 2018 Gender Equity Report. It indicates that the top three challenges to improve the representation and contribution of women on Wikipedia are (a) systemic bias in policies (Notability, Reliable Sources, Categories), (b) lack of awareness (such as an implicit bias in which a patriarchal perspective is unconsciously privileged as normal while alternative perspectives are misinterpreted, dismissed, minimised or even outright denied), and ( c) poor community health (harassment, lack of support, lack of diversity).

What can be done to improve matters?

Several practices have been identified to improve the matter of representation (‘content gender gap’) and participation (‘editor gender gap’) on Wikipedia. These include host off-Wiki events; focus on content creation and intersectional knowledge; track progress but not only in terms of ‘metrics’ (number of articles created, number of editors) but also in terms of being transformative; recruit new participants, and cultivate partnerships. At Women in Red, we rely on social media to engage with the public. We not only tweet about the articles that have been written, but we inform about the percentage of women’s biographies versus. men’s (17.78% as of February 11, 2019). We also tweet about the challenges we face such as Donna Strickland’s Wikipedia article initially being deleted and only restored only after she won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

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

No, most women do not feel either empowered enough or present in leadership positions. Of course, there are exceptions. For several years, I was involved in talent acquisition (recruitment) For example, studies show that men are more likely to apply for promotions when they only meet some of the requirements, but this is not so true for women. In the international Wikimedia movement, almost all countries represented have a majority-male board of directors. There are 301 languages Wikipedias, and those that have Administrators, have a male majority. I think ‘imposter syndrome’ is more common than we know among potential women leaders, and with this in mind, our strategies for recruiting women leaders within the Wikimedia movement should be different than how we encourage or empower men.

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

Be bold and align yourself with a mentor. 

I have been lucky in my academic and professional life to have had strong women leaders help me along the way. Seek them out if they aren’t readily available, and be honest with your aspirations. Know thyself, and don’t be afraid to pivot if you are curious to learn about or move in a different direction. Hopefully, it's a long life.

What digital communities or networks do you find rewarding?

Mostly, I belong to small, digital communities, where each of us feels free to speak without censoring ourselves. It’s all about trust. I live in a small, rural town in northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, a half mile down a gravel road. While I have a supportive family and good friends, being a member of these digital communities supports my wellbeing.

Who (or what) inspires you at the moment?

I am so inspired by women suffragists and other women of that day or were able to develop platforms, coordinate international conferences, and ‘make things happen’ in a pre-digital world. I know how hard it is to be a force for change today, for example in women’s marches, so I am voracious in wanting to learn more about who these women were and how they accomplished what they did. In 2015, I wrote the Wikipedia article about the ‘Pan-American Conference of Women’ and I still think about one of its organisers, Bertha Lutz, a Brazilian zoologist, politician, and diplomat, who was a leading figure in feminist and human rights movements. More recently, in January 2019, I wrote the article about Katherine Stewart MacPhail of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service, a volunteer doctor in war-torn Serbia, where she founded the first children's hospital. Last, but not least, I am inspired by my maternal grandmother, Paulina Lebl-Albala, who was a co-founder and the first president of the Yugoslav Association of University Women. Though she is long-dead, sometimes I think she’s the only person who could truly understand why I do what I do.

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.