“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.
“Women scientists tend to bring it up. They tend to be pissed off about it,” she said. “It’s a real issue, and it’s something they have to learn to deal with, and they don’t want to deal with it, so they complain about it.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a defining part of their professional lives.
Finkbeiner offered a similar defense of Aschwanden’s rule against mentioning that a scientist is a role model for other women, when I asked what reporters should do if a source pays someone that compliment.
“That comment is endemic to the field,” she said. “I had to get some outside quotes for the profile of this astronomer, and every single one said, ‘… and she’s a great role model,’ and I didn’t put any of that in. Scientists, male and female, tend to be role models for their students and younger colleagues, and I’ve just heard it too often.”
A few commenters on Finkbeiner and Aschwanden’s posts asked whether the solution was not to stop asking female scientists about their home lives, but rather to start asking their male colleagues. After all, they pointed out, reporters have long talked about the need to “humanize” scientists. But Finkbeiner argued that family matters are rarely the best way to accomplish that goal.
“I’ve been doing this science writing business for a long time, and I have done many profiles of both men and women scientists, and honestly, none of those things are all that unusual,” she said. “They’re all normal human beings and the thing that makes them so interesting is the science. So, if you want to humanize them, talk about their motivations. Talk about how they got interested in their field. Talk about the part of their life that led them to become such an interesting scientist—because childcare is not interesting.”
As for examples of outlets that are covering gender issues in the right way, there’s the site where Aschwanden proposed the Finkbeiner Test, Double X Science, whose goal is to “to bring evidence-based science stories and angles on science specifically of interest to the female-gendered audience.”
The venue might seem like an ironic choice for such a post, but when the site’s reporters write about science, they tackle it head on, without regard to the gender of those who produced it, and when they write about gender issues, they take the direct approach as well, setting aside details about research and the laws of science.
There is also Nature, which published an incisive special report on women in science in early March, which reported that:
Science remains institutionally sexist. Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less frequently, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men.
But as Finkbeiner mentioned in her post, the problem exists in the pages of Nature as well. Last November, following complaints that it featured too few female authors, the journal published the results of an internal review that revealed that only 14 percent of its reviewers and 19 percent of its invited Comment and World View authors were female. In addition, of the 34 researchers profiled by journalists in 2011 and up to that point in 2012, only six—a mere 18 percent—were women.
“We vowed to improve, and have asked our editors to try harder to engage with women,” read the editorial in this month’s special report. “In time, we will make our progress public.”