Wikimedia Is Moving Toward Using Gender-Neutral Pronouns

"This is worth a little 'discomfort' in order to feel more welcoming for women, trans and genderqueer future contributors."
April 5, 2017, 5:00pm
Image: Shawn/Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/shawncalhoun/16549484220/in/album-72157651213368025/

Wikimedia editors are considering a move to gender-neutral pronouns as default policy on some of the network's pages in hopes of becoming a more inclusive community.

The move will start with Wikimedia Commons and Help pages, and has been met with general positivity so far. It grew out of discussions at the annual Wikimedia Conference in Berlin, according to user , who made the initial proposal Tuesday. Main Commons and Help namespaces would automatically support edits to gender-neutral pronouns, replacing "his or her" with "their" when preferred gender pronoun isn't specified.

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This comes as the Wikimedia community — and many spaces online where a diverse group of people work together — grapple with ways to curb harassment and support inclusion.

"I recognize that moving to a more gender neutral form for other languages is much harder, but that is not a reason for our community to avoid showing leadership within our Wikimedia projects, and we should forge ahead where it is possible and reasonable to do so," Fæ wrote. "I'd even say this is worth a little 'discomfort' in order to adopt modern best practices and take positive steps to feel more welcoming for women, trans and genderqueer future contributors."

Wikipedia editors are predominantly male. A 2011 survey showed that only 16 percent of editors were women. The disparity makes a difference in how women are portrayed on the site as subjects: Women's pages were more likely to focus on their personal relationships than their accomplishments, research has shown. Articles about women more often linked to articles about men than vice versa, and were more likely to emphasize gender than in articles about men.

Points of opposition so far include the confusion ESL speakers might encounter with "their" meaning "a community," and how the meaning in non-English translations could get garbled. "In the past, we used the male pronouns in situations where it could apply to anybody," user ghouston writes. "Then people started thinking it was sexist, and we've been somewhat confused ever since."

With 18 billion page views a month, a change to how people use Wikipedia and its pages is a small but meaningful step toward better gender inclusivity online.