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How one young female scientist decided to cope with online harassment

A young woman was surprised to find female scientist under-represented on Wikipedia — and decided to do something about it. (iStock)
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On a typical day, Emily Temple-Wood, a molecular biology student at Loyola University in Chicago, juggles back-to-back classes, volunteer work and research projects in the school’s developmental biology lab.

Then she comes home, makes herself a cup of tea — and gets to work at channeling online harassment into female empowerment.

Temple-Wood has been an active Wikipedia contributor since childhood, and like many women with an online presence, she is often bombarded by emails filled with crude messages and misogynist slurs. But now, for every one of those messages she receives, she has vowed to write a new Wikipedia biography of a prominent female scientist.

Her effort began during a Wikipedia editathon in October 2012, when she searched Wikipedia for many of her female heroes of science and realized they were nowhere to be found. Furious, she sat in the hallway of her dorm until 2 a.m. writing a biography of Ann Bishop, a British biologist who was one of the first female fellows of the prestigious Royal Society.

Soon after, Temple-Wood founded WikiProject Women Scientists to help correct the gender discrepancy she’d discovered. It’s part of a larger pattern: Only about 15 percent of Wikipedia’s English-language biographies are about women, the organization acknowledges.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Temple-Wood’s effort triggered even more hateful emails.

“It’s the stuff that gets yelled at you on the street, except someone took the time to type that down,” she said. “A lot of sexual solicitation, insinuations about who I’m sleeping with and how much and where, all that gross stuff. And then they get mad when I don’t respond.”

[Online harassment of women is a problem. Here’s what to do about it.]

The emails kept coming as her project gained steam and the number of female scientists listed on Wikipedia climbed from 1,600 to 5,000. The barrage of abusive messages was sometimes hard to take, Temple-Wood says.

“I was just so frustrated,” she says. “I was like, I need to do something productive with this rage rather than sitting around and being angry — that doesn’t solve anything.”

So, a couple of months ago, she came up with an idea: She could use the harassment as a motivator.

Sleazy come-on? Meet Rosalyn Scott, the first African-American woman to become a thoracic surgeon.

Chauvinist remark? Profanity-laced tirade? Here’s Marguerite Lwoff, a French microbiologist and virologist, and Liliana Lubinska, a Polish neuroscientist known for her research of the peripheral nervous system.

“I decided to do something actually productive that would also make misogynists angry, because that’s the last thing that people who hate women want, for more information about great women to be out there,” Temple-Wood says.

[Men who harass women online are quite literally losers, new study finds]

This tactic hasn’t exactly stopped the harassment, nor has she kept up with the pace of the appalling emails. (“I have a backlog of 118,” she notes dryly.) But more than 370 of the new articles have been featured on Wikipedia’s homepage, and about two dozen have been peer-reviewed, which garners them a higher quality rating. Temple-Wood has also amassed a team of about 70 Wikipedia contributors who are helping with her project — and some of them have also adopted her practice of writing a new bio for each abusive online encounter.

“Instead of just being like, ‘God, that ruined my day,’ instead of being blindly upset, I just focus that energy into something productive and satisfying,” she says.

Siko Bouterse,  a former Wikipedia Foundation staff member, told the Wikimedia blog that Temple-Wood’s work has had a profound impact.

“It’s really important that she’s not just writing about white women scientists, she’s also working to address under-representation of women of color in Wikipedia,” Bourtese said. “When I was a kid, I could count the number of women scientists I was aware of on one hand. But I know our daughters are going to have access to so much more free knowledge about scientists who look like them, thanks to Emily’s efforts, and that’s really powerful.”

Even for many adults, Temple-Woods says, the Internet has become the primary source of information: If something isn’t there, it may as well not exist.

“A lot of these women, you can’t Google them and find their stories, they’re locked up in obscure books,” she says. “So we’re making these stories accessible to everyone, and giving these legacies their due. We call it ‘writing women back into history.’”

There’s still a long way to go. Temple-Woods plans to head to medical school next year, but she says she’ll keep contributing to her project whenever she has time.

“I would love for every single notable woman scientist to have an article on Wikipedia that is beautiful and comprehensive and complete,” she says. “So we still have a lot of work to do.”