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Wonder Women

Explore Life Science

Jess Wade leads a double life. She is polymer physicist during the day. At night, she fights for better representation of women and people of color on Wikipedia.

Dr. Wade, your regular job is researching light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Since early 2018 you have edited more than 850 Wikipedia entries about female scientists in the evenings. What is the motivation behind your second occupation?

Jess Wade:
Eleven percent of physics professors in Great Britain are women. As a physicist, I see the underrepresentation of women and people of color on a daily basis. I read Angela Saini’s book “Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It” in 2017. It points out the stereotypes that have excluded women from contributing to science and society. Around the same time, I met Dr. Alice White, a Wikipedia editor who explained to me how influential this platform is. English Wikipedia gets 32 million page views a day, but about 90 percent of the content is created by white men in North America. Only 18 percent of the biographies on English language Wikipedia are about women.

How do you find out about the people you would like to write about?

Wade: Sometimes it’s seeing people speak, sometimes it’s from social media, sometimes it’s reading newspapers or journals or magazines. This is how I find out whether someone has won a prestigious award or done a big lecture or published a really interesting scientific paper. In the evening, when I come home from the lab, I start researching. There are people who are easy to find and some who need more extensive work. But those who are trickier to research can prove to be a bit more interesting. There are a lot of people that have done incredible things in science but have not had the coverage that they deserve yet.

Do you have a favorite discovery?

Wade: Physicist Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in 2018. She didn’t have a Wikipedia page until the day the award was announced. An editor had rejected a submitted entry, claiming the subject did not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirement. My favorite recent entry was the physicist June Lindsey, a Cambridge and Oxford crystallographer, who was influential in the discovery of DNA structure in the 1940s. In spite of being real scientific royalty, she left science completely to look after her two children. It wasn’t until a Canadian pediatrician met her at his mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party, that her story went mainstream. I found out, and now she’s on Wikipedia.

Have you ever given up on anyone?

Wade: I stop when I get the feeling that I don’t like the person or when I think they are really arrogant or big on self promotion and don’t need more public coverage. I also stop when it becomes apparent that although I might think that they are important, they don’t meet Wikipedia’s strict notability criteria. For example scientists must have published a number of papers, they have to be named professor and they have to have won an international award. This rules out women and people of color particularly because they don’t get enough public recognition or grants.

Do you think that Wikipedia needs to change its rules?

Wade: I think that the rules are actually OK. They just reflect our society which is not equal. The problem is that we don’t give enough recognition to women or people of color. So, I think we should actually keep the same criteria, but get better in awarding women and people of color more fellowships and more significant science awards. The online encyclopedia is the only peer-reviewed, crowdsourced, democratized access to information worldwide. If you put content on there, people don’t only read it, it changes their perception about who they think does science and what they think science is.

Have you ever experienced criticism for your edits?

Wade: Definitely. Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia editors don’t like being told that they are sexists or racists. Some claim that by adding more women’s biographies I would be making the website worse instead of better. They argue that if we have a gender gap in society, Wikipedia should reflect that. So they respond badly. I think this is something that I can win by turning it into something good.

When will you stop?

Wade: That is a really good question. I don’t know. I used to play on my computer and do video games when I needed some down time from my day job. Now I find that Wikipedia is just the most productive thing to do. I love learning about different periods of science I would otherwise have no opportunity to interact with. I will keep going until I stop enjoying it. Hopefully along the way I will have trained and motivated enough people who want to contribute.

Short Portrait

Dr. Jessica Wade graduated in physics, chemistry and art. She then lived in Florence and took classes in art and art history. This is where she learned about people like Leonardo da Vinci who was an artist, architect and scientist at the same time. She returned to science for her master’s degree and finished her PhD in May 2016. She then took on a job in educational policy for six months but figured instantly that she had to have a research job and returned to the Blackett Laboratory at Imperial College London.