Producing knowledge through an intersectional lens

Intersectionality is Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s theory that attempts to understand how institutions shape our social statuses and experiences, and it’s central to academic disciplines like women’s studies. National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Wikipedia Fellow Dr. Jenn Brandt worked this spring to improve the women’s studies Wikipedia article and define the discipline for the broader public. She summarized it as “an academic field that draws on feminist and interdisciplinary methods in order to place women’s lives and experiences at the center of study, while examining social and cultural constructs of gender; systems of privilege and oppression; and the relationships between power and gender as they intersect with other identities and social locations such as race, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, and disability.”

Earlier this year, I joined women and gender studies department chairs at an NWSA meeting in Denver. The meeting offered the opportunity to present to more than 50 women’s studies department chairs about our partnership with NWSA to expand Wikipedia’s coverage of their discipline. As it has over the past few years, the meeting also offered an opportunity for me to learn about the current discourse among women’s studies scholars. More than ever, presentations and discussions focused on intersectionality and not only women but women of color, domestic violence survivors, immigrants, refugees, and others who are often overlooked and underrepresented, even in academic scholarship.

One session, led by Dr. Lisa Anderson-Levy, Dr. Jesse Carr, and Dr. Catherine M. Orr, focused on “decolonizing higher education” and “why diversity doesn’t work.” Their interactive workshop asked participants to consider how whiteness benefits them at their institution of higher education. In other words: how does others’ oppression and exclusion benefit you? What investment do you have personally in an environment deemed unsafe for people unlike you? The ensuing discussion suggested that initiatives to diversify an institution (e.g., higher education) overlook the underlying causes that built a homogeneous institution in the first place.

The idea may resonate with some of us who are familiar with Wikipedia and have made a purposeful effort to improve its inclusion and representation over the years—not only of its editor base but of its knowledge. At Wiki Education, we have covered Wikipedia’s gender content gap extensively. Partially due to Wikipedia’s 80% male editor base, the available and high-quality content is disproportionately about men. But what is Wikipedia doing to close these gaps?

Individuals, groups of people, institutions, and organizations have been working hard over the last several years to add women, people of color, and other underrepresented communities into Wikipedia. Initiatives like Art + FeminismAfroCrowd, and Women in Red have helped increase the percentage of biographies about women from 15% to 17.65% since November 2014—not a small feat for an encyclopedia of nearly 6 million articles. Likewise, Wiki Education’s Classroom Program has facilitated thousands of students adding important content to Wikipedia that increases its parity of different communities, especially non-white and non-male.

Just this spring, students in Dr. Moramay López-Alonso’s course at Rice University significantly expanded the articles on refugee womenhuman rights in Mexicohomeless dumpingchild labor in Cambodiagender inequality in India, and Islamophobia in the United States. Dozens of other courses focused on black women, LGBTQ+ people, and people in other countries. The students in those classes have access to a wealth of knowledge at the university—both in the libraries and in their instructors’ understanding that an intersectional lens produces a more accurate picture. That’s why the Classroom Program is such a powerful tool for improving Wikipedia’s equity, and these students exemplify the reasons Wiki Education has made equity a priority for our organization’s strategy to bring reliable, representative knowledge to the world.

The conversations at NWSA’s meeting, among highly trained scholars who deem intersectionality crucial to creating a better world, revealed that even with intentions to make our systems of knowledge more inclusive, we impede the outcomes by limiting our own framework and understanding of what equity looks like. To prepare for the meeting, NWSA asked all participants to read Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart’s Inside Higher Ed article about the dangers of “diversity” rhetoric. Stewart discerns between “diversity and inclusion” and “equity and social justice,” emphasizing the need to consider the latter as institutions evolve. A few of the points stood out as being especially applicable to Wikipedia, quoted below:

  • Diversity asks, “Who’s in the room?” Equity responds: “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?”
  • Inclusion asks, “Has everyone’s ideas been heard?” Justice responds, “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”
  • Diversity asks, “How many more of [pick any minoritized identity] group do we have this year than last?” Equity responds, “What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?”

On Wikipedia, we’ve begun mobilizing to create content that’s more diverse by adding more content about underrepresented communities. However, we have a lot of work to do to adjust those conditions that maintain whiteness and maleness in the encyclopedia. We have a lot of work to do get more types of people “in the room.” Wiki Education has proven up to the task of doing that work, and I’m thrilled we explicitly included equity as a cornerstone of our ongoing strategy. Now, we can continue the work we do with educational institutions and the wider community that help us make Wikipedia more representative of the world’s collective knowledge.

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