The Finkbeiner Test

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Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me a link to the wikipedia article about “The Finkbeiner Test.” This test is a checklist of things NOT to include when writing an article about a woman in science, created by Christie Aschwanden and named after Ann Finkbeiner. Finkbeiner had been asked to write a profile of a female astronomer “just before the magazine announced publicly that it needs to redress its problem with a gender balance that favors males.” She reportedly said “I honestly don’t care. What I won’t do, however, is write about this astronomer as a woman.” The Finkbeiner test is sort of the Bechdel test of science coverage. Here is the list of things you should not 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…”

Now, when I first read this, I agreed with all of them except one. The first one. “Wouldn’t it be good,” I thought, “to say she was a woman?” That way, young women would see a woman being successful in her field, and know that this was an option for them too. And then I thought about it more deeply and realized that no, the fact that she’s a woman should not be there. Why? Because we already know she is. Presumably there’s a photo of her in the article, and even if there isn’t we’re certainly told her first name. Highlighting the fact that she’s a woman by saying it outright doesn’t suddenly make me realize that this scientist I’m reading about identifies as female. Instead, it implies – intentionally or not – that her womanhood is something she had to overcome to get to where she is. That even though she’s a woman, she managed to discover X or do Y. The fact is, she didn’t overcome her gender. Being a woman doesn’t, believe it or not, mean that you aren’t as good at math or science. What she overcame was the bias against women in science that is prevalent even today. She overcame years of attempts to push her out of STEM – whether intentional or not. She made it through years of direct comments like “girls are bad at math,” or more indirect comments like “isn’t that class a little hard for you?” Highlighting her gender makes it seem like she’s the exception. She’s the outlier. She’s a woman who does science. The focus becomes her gender, not her accomplishments. If her gender is the focus of the article, like when I interview women about being women in science, that’s different. But if we’re talking about some new scientific insight, then there’s no reason for it.

Comments about childcare and what her husband does are equally irrelevant. Unless her husband cowrote the paper being discussed, his accomplishments or research interests are not important. All comments like this do are – again, intentionally or not – reinforce the idea that women should always strive to be wives and mothers. We never ask male scientists how they manage childcare. Asking female scientists this question implies that they should always be a mother first and a scientist after. It tells the readers “don’t worry, she made sure to do her job as a mother before she went and did this science stuff.” Doing any job, scientific or otherwise, without being judged for either not parenting enough – or not at all – is a luxury most women don’t have and most men don’t realize they get.

Talking about how a female scientist is a role model to other women sounds great at the outset. As a woman in STEM, having women to look up to helps me whenever I feel discouraged. But the problem with this type of statement is that no one ever says it about men, at least not in a gendered sense. If a male scientist discovers something amazing, people don’t often say he’s a “role model in the scientific community,” and they certainly don’t say he’s a role model for men. Women and men who discover great things in science are going to be seen as role models without it needing to be said. And saying that a woman is a great role model for other women implies that they can’t be a role model for anyone, or that women interested in science don’t have male role models. Every scientist who makes a discovery can be a role model for someone. It doesn’t need to be said, and it certainly doesn’t need to be gendered. One of my role models in astrophysics is Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Why? We certainly don’t have much in common. I’m a white girl from California, he isn’t. But his race and his gender aren’t what make me see him as a role model. His dedication to bringing people into the scientific community, and his efforts to make science available to everyone through television and essays written to be understood by anyone regardless of their scientific background are. Do I have female role models in science? Of course! But they aren’t my role models because some article said they should be. They’re my role models because they did something I thought was amazing. Just like everyone’s role models.

Finally, we get to “the first woman to …” I have mixed feelings about this. In some ways, I think statements like this give us an idea of how far women have come in the scientific community, and can highlight the work we still have to do. When I interviewed Dr Bertozzi last year, I was amazed to hear that Judith Klinman was the first woman hired in any physical science department at UC Berkeley. And that was in 1979. That wasn’t her being hired as the head of a department, she was the first woman hired at all. I think things like that are important to know historically. Yes, you never hear someone is the first man to do something, but that’s because until recently, men kept women out of science. You don’t hear that someone was the first man to do something because they didn’t have to break through some barrier to do so. They were, perhaps, the first people to do something, like go into space, but it’s never important that they were the first man to do it. I think the line to draw here is knowing when saying “the first woman to …” is ok and when it isn’t. To me, if she’s first woman to hold an esteemed position previously only given to men, or to break through some barrier like being the first woman to attend a previously all-male college, then it’s ok to say she was the first woman to do it. It shows that this lady was kick-ass enough to break through this barrier. It shows that if we only just got to this point, we’ve got work to do. When it isn’t ok is if she’s the first person to do something, or if it’s about discovering something.Then she isn’t the first woman to do it, she’s the first person to, and highlighting her gender there is just ludicrous.

Take the recent announcement about the discovery of gravitational waves by the team at LIGO. That discovery is groundbreaking. It has huge implications for science. When you read through this article in The Guardian, that’s what gets discussed. The men on the project are introduced by name and what position they hold. No one says “Kip Thorne, whose wife, Dr. Carolee Joyce Winstein, is a professor of Biokinesiology at USC…” because that would be stupid. It sounds stupid just reading it. (Note: I’m not trying to single out Dr. Thorne. He just seemed like a good example). Now consider this video from the BBC about Dr. Sara Seager’s search for exoplanets that could support life. The video itself is great. Her accomplishments are highlighted. She’s front and center. She explains her work, the challenges that we still face, and the accomplishments she’s already had. She discusses how her past research and proposals are being used in the field now. But when you scroll down to the images, you encounter one that is captioned, “Seager has said in the past she only has one goal in life, besides raising her children: to find a second Earth.” Now, it’s true that Dr. Seager has said this, but why include it here? Sure, it relates to the topic in that it mentions finding another Earth, but it wasn’t even a direct quote, and her children aren’t relevant to how she searches for exoplanets. Going back to the gravitational wave article and Kip Thorne, there is no mention of the fact that he has also had children, who were young when he was doing research in the past. There’s no mention of him, for example, being proud of how his children grew up. Why? Because in this case it doesn’t matter. We’re not here to hear about how his kids grew up and what jobs they have now. We’re not here to make sure he was a good dad. We’re here to learn about the amazing breakthroughs he and many others have worked to make. Dr. Seager should be treated the same way.

There is one final thing I’d like to add to the Finkbeiner Test’s checklist. You should not mention what the woman scientist was wearing when she makes an announcement. In searching for articles to use as an example in the comparison above, I found one about Sara Seager that I didn’t use because the second half was a sort of biography, so bringing up her husband and children seemed fine to me. However, the article felt the need to mention that while she was imploring her colleagues and other scientists to help find a second Earth, “she paced tightly, dressed all in black except for a long red-and-pink scarf, and spoke in her distinctive staccato voice into a hand-held microphone.” Why was this necessary? Answer: it wasn’t. So how about we stop talking about what women in science are wearing, who they married, how they care for their children, and how a woman figured something out, and start talking about all the immensely cool things they discover, ok? Thanks.


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