There’s still a gender gap in the sciences, with far fewer women than men in research jobs, and those women earning substantially less, but it doesn’t help when journalists treat every female scientist they profile as an archetype of perseverance.

Such was the consensus that emerged from a discussion prompted by a March 5 post at Double X Science by freelancer Christie Aschwanden, who observed that:

Campaigns to recognize outstanding female scientists have led to a recognizable genre of media coverage. Let’s call it “A lady who…” genre. You’ve seen these profiles, of course you have, because they’re everywhere. The hallmark of “A lady who…” profile is that it treats its subject’s sex as her most defining detail. She’s not just a great scientist, she’s a woman! And if she’s also a wife and a mother, those roles get emphasized too.

Aschwanden cited a few examples littered with phrases like, “she is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research,” and proposed that, as a means of avoiding such gratuitous gender profiles, reporters adopt a simple, seven-part test. To pass, a story cannot mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child-care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

Aschwanden dubbed her checklist, “The Finkbeiner Test,” in honor of her colleague, science writer Ann Finkbeiner, who had written a post for the blog Last Word on Nothing in January about an assignment she’d received from Nature to write a profile of a female astronomer.

Finkbeiner, an award-winning journalist, noted that the assignment had come “just before the magazine announced publicly that it needs to redress its problem with a gender balance that favors males,” and that both she and her subject were “suspiciously female.”

“I honestly don’t care,” Finkbeiner concluded. “What I won’t do, however, is write about this astronomer as a woman.”

Finkbeiner went on to explain that she’d written many gender-oriented profiles over the course of her career at various editors’ behest, and learned all about sexual harassment and the challenges associated with having both a career and a family.

Some progress notwithstanding, those problems have not gone away, she continued, but she had grown “bored” with writing about them, and pledged to ignore gender in the upcoming profile. “I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer,” she wrote.

Finkbeiner stressed in her post that she was describing a personal decision, but expressed wholehearted support for Aschwanden’s test in a recent interview.

However, both she and Aschwanden, whom I also interviewed, emphasized that the test should apply mainly to the sort of general-interest scientist profiles that one might find in The New York Times or the front section of Nature, which are supposed to focus on professional accomplishments.

There is plenty of need to write about gender issues, the two agreed, but the point is to do it right. In an email, Aschwanden wrote:

A lot of commenters have said, ‘But isn’t it sometimes ok to mention these things about a woman?’ And my answer is, yes. In some circumstances it’s perfectly fine. For instance, if you’re writing a story about sexism in science or about the gender gap in leadership roles in science or you’re writing about sex-related issues specifically.

What’s not ok is to turn a story about a scientist’s professional life into one about her personal life or her gender roles. What’s especially problematic is to frame the story, ‘and the most remarkable thing is that she accomplished all of this while being a woman!’

Still, the virtue of some rules in Aschwanden’s test is difficult to see at first. Take the rule of “no firsts.” In the comments section below her post for Last Word on Nothing, Finkbeiner explained that no sooner had she taken the vow to ignore gender, than she caught herself writing that the astronomer she was profiling was the first to win a certain award. After a reader urged her to stick to her pledge, she removed it.

“The fact that she’s the first woman to do that says a lot more about the prize-giving committee than it does about her,” Finkbeiner explained in our interview. “So if I were going to put that into a story, it would be a story about prejudice in that prize committee.”

Asked what reporters should do if a scientist mentions the gender gap in her field, Finkbeiner said they should use their discretion, but shouldn’t feel compelled to include those comments if they’re not relevant to the story.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.