the observatory

‘The Finkbeiner Test’

Seven rules to avoid gratuitous gender profiles of female scientists
March 22, 2013

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.”

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“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.

“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.”

Finkbeiner’s profile of UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, which ran on March 20, is evidence of that progress. It’s a beautifully written piece about Ghez’s fascination with telescopes and her pioneering work with speckle imaging, which led to proof that a supermassive black hole lies at the center of the Milky Way–and it has nothing to do with her gender.

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