Spreading the Word About Female Scientists
Of the thousands of biographical Wikipedia entries on the internet, fewer than 20% are about women. That’s something Jess Wade is hoping to change.
A research fellow at Imperial College London who’s on a mission to bring representation to female scientists on Wikipedia.
Wade, who researches nanoparticles in her gig as a physicist, actually studied art for a year in Italy before committing to a career in science.
To balance out Wikipedia’s biographies and educate the masses about impressive female scientists.
Wade has written or edited a massive 1,850 Wikipedia pages in the past five years, about one page each day. Some of her articles include biographies on mathematician Gladys West, nanomaterials scientist Sumita Mitra, and immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett.
What’s your career focus?
I’m building my own research group now, looking at exciting properties of these molecules and trying to create not just more efficient versions of current technologies but really innovative new technologies that can do things like detect particular diseases or monitor magnetic fields associated with brain function or be used to look for defects in airplane wings. Basically, materials that will make society better from a molecular perspective.
How did you get into editing and writing Wikipedia pages?
I had for a long time been trying to improve representation of women and people of color studying physics. I was aware I was doing this extraordinary subject that could have all this extraordinary potential, but we don’t have enough people from historically excluded groups doing it. So I’d always been doing these high school visits or festivals or things like that, and then I realized, over the course of doing that during my Ph.D., it’s all lovely, but ultimately you’re preaching to the converted. You actually need to get these stories of breakthroughs and discoveries to a much bigger audience.
What did this entail?
In 2017, I learned how to edit Wikipedia — I went to a kind of Wikipedia edit-athon that was focused on improving the quality of Wikipedia pages about engineering. In the holidays of 2017 to 2018, I was like, “Oh, I’ll write one Wikipedia page every day,” and then I started doing it and I realized the kind of huge bias against women on Wikipedia, just because every woman I was researching and writing about was really quite extraordinary but wasn’t there when I started.
I realized it was not only simple for me to do something to rectify it, but it was really quite fun, because I get to learn about these things every night, like a new technique or a new discovery or a new city.
What does inclusivity mean to you?
For me, it’s not just saying, “Let’s get a bunch more women into physics” and then hiring a bunch of women and having this extraordinarily toxic environment that pushes them out. It’s saying, “Let’s get a bunch of different voices and perspectives into this discipline that desperately needs it and we’re going to make sure that every single person’s voice is heard.”
What are some concrete ways to make women feel more welcome in science?
Connecting to other people beyond your organization. In academia, it might be people in different universities or in industry. In big tech or big industries, it might be looking at other places that are doing really, really well and looking at the policies that work. One of the most exhausting things in the whole world is trying to reinvent the wheel, and you lose so much energy and enthusiasm and really good people because they’re fighting against all these blocks trying to create something totally new. Some initiatives really work. Paid childcare, nurseries that are close to campus, maternity leave, having a really clear harassment policy, having a really clear code of conduct for employees — things that work, look at them and really try to emulate them.
You write about a lot of complex topics for lay audiences on Wikipedia. What are your top tips for being a clear and effective communicator?
The art of what you’re trying to explain is to try and do it without the jargon of your field. I wrote a kid’s book about the materials in the science I work on, called Nano, and everyone always asks about writing that — “What was it like trying to explain these incredibly complicated topics to children?” And I was like, “That’s just how I think about them in my head!” I think we as economists, as scientists, as politicians, as whatever people do — you often have to use all of these frilly, fancy words to try to get other people to think you’re really clever, but when you really try to teach a topic, you’ve got to get right back to those fundamentals. Sit down and think about the message you’re trying to explain and try to explain it as if you’re trying to explain it to an 11-year-old, and then you’ll be in a position where anyone without your extraordinary technical background can understand it. And then people will start to listen, and that’s when you start to make change.