There is a test that we, at Lost Women of Science , seem to fail over and over again: The Finkbeiner . Named after the science writer Ann Finkbeiner , the Finkbeiner Test allows you to write profiles of female scientists without being too sexist. It doesn’t mention her husband’s job or her childcare arrangements. We also don’t break these rules often on this show. This episode features Katie Hafner talking to Christie Aschwanden ,, the science writer who created this test, and Ann Finkbeiner , to learn how they came up these rules and if there is still hope for our series. Carol Sutton Lewis has a different set of rules for telling these stories. She shares her findings with her.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
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CHRISTIE AHWANDEN: I can remember thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what you should do.” Let’s stop doing that. We won’t make gender the main issue in every article about female scientists.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m Carol Sutton Lewis.
KATIE HAFNER: And I’m Katie Hafner. This is Lost Women of Science.
CAROL SUTTON LESWIS: Today, we’re focusing on whether or not we made a mistake.
KATIEHAFNER: Carol, I spoke to two scientists writers recently about the Finkbeiner test. We have been acutely aware of this since Lost Women of Science was founded.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Yep, absolutely
KATIE HAFNER: Absolutely. The Finkbeiner test, which is a list that allows you to write about female scientists without being sexist, is also available. It says things like: Don’t mention her husband’s job, and don’t talk about her childcare arrangements. It was created by Christie Aschwanden, a science writer who was inspired by Ann Finkbeiner. Our show fails this test every time, either sadly or just as a matter of fact. I interviewed the two people who created the rules for the test.
It turns out it all started in 2013 when Ann Finkbeiner got an assignment-
ANNFINKBEINER : -to create a profile for an excellent astronomer, Andrea Ghez G-H-EZ.
KATIE HAFIN: Ghez is most well-known for discovering what appears like a supermassive dark hole in the center of our galaxy. A few years ago, she and a colleague won a Nobel prize.
KATIE HAFIN: Ann began to think about how many times these same things had been mentioned in articles about women–the mentorship, the childcare. There were other tropes too–the husband’s job, how this woman was a role model for others, her triumph in the face of terrible sexism…
ANNFINKBEINER : I was getting tired of this storyline. It was just too much.
KATIEHAFNER: She wrote this blog post. It was sort of a manifesto about how she would write about women from now.
ANNFINKBEINER – I said in the blog that I would not do all the things I had promised. I didn’t even mention that she was a female. I didn’t mention her husband having a job, or what his job was. I was not going to mention her childcare arrangements. I wasn’t going to write about those things. I was going to pretend that she was an astronomer. I was going to write about her as an astronomer. That blog post would have been lost to our archives. Christie was interested in it.
KATIEHAFNER: Christie Aschwanden reads Ann’s post and thinks –
CHRISTIE SCHWANDEN: That’s exactly what you should do. Let’s stop doing that. We won’t make gender the main issue for every female scientist who has written about it. So I read Ann’s blog post and took the points she had made, as well as the ones she didn’t want to mention, and formalized them. It’s a sort of checklist. It’s not to be forgotten that she’s a female-
KATIEHAFNER: This is not to mention her husbands job
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: You’re not to mention her childcare arrangements
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Or how she nurtures her underlings
CAROL SUTTON LEOIS: How stunned she was by the level of competition in her field
CHRISTIE ASHWANDEN: Why she’s such an example for other women
CAROL SUTTON LESIS: How she became the first woman to –
KATIE HAFNER: blah, blah, blah
CHRISTIE ASHWANDEN: I think that all these items have one thing in common. They treat this scientist like her gender is the most important thing about her.
KATIE HAFIN: That sounds like a reasonable argument to me. However, the test doesn’t work for us.
CAROL SUTTON LESIS: No. I understand the idea of not making gender-related activity front and centre, but erasing it altogether. This seems a bit extreme to me. We failed this test. Our entire concept fails the test. It’s not just one episode.
KATIE HAFNER: Yeah.
CAROL SUTTON LESIS: It seems like, according to what they just said- Lost Women of science shouldn’t exist.
KATIE HAFIN: I did investigate whether there might be exceptions. But we’ll get there. Here’s the result of the test. Christie then creates her checklist and names it the Finkbeiner Test .
ANNFINKBEINER : The New York Times published an obituary about a woman rocket scientist. Her name was Yvonne Brill, B-R-I-L-L.
KATIEHAFNER: She had also developed a fuel-efficient rocket thruster, which is used in satellites today. This is really, really important work. These rockets can carry less fuel, and last longer. So naturally, she rises to the New York Times obituary level. But this is the first line of the NY Times obituary. [Carol giggles] [Carol laughs]
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN : The way he has set up this obituary reinforces the notion that the most important thing a woman can do is be a mother or a wife. This is your role as a woman. Once you’ve fulfilled those roles, it might be okay for you to become a rocket scientist. It’s okay for her to be rocket scientist because she is a remarkable mother and wife.
KATIE HAFIN: As you can see, people weren’t happy with the Times.
ANNFINKBEINER : It was so much fun. They had to write one, um, public editor note about it.
KATIE HAFIN: What happened to the public editor?
ANN FINKBEINER: Yeah.
KATIEHAFNER: So Margaret Sullivan, that’s the public editor, condemned the article’s “emphasis upon domesticity” and said it undervalued Yvonne Brill’s groundbreaking scientific work. Sullivan also shared the obituary on Twitter with all her followers. She also shared a piece that provided a little more perspective. It was an article by Columbia Journalism Review about the Finkbeiner test.
xKATIE HAFIN: The lead was changed by the New York Times. As someone who has written many obituaries for Times, I can confirm that this is a big deal. To correct something, it must be factually incorrect. You know, she could have made a horrible stroganoff. [Carol giggles] But the-the stroganoff lead was really, really wrongheaded. They changed it. In the updated version, Yvonne Brill goes from stroganoff-maker, to brilliant rocket scientist. It’s still a mess, but it’s Finkbeiner rules. The lead still mentions her children and husband, and her son then calls her the best mom in the world. By the way, New York Times rules for writing an obituary stipulate that one cannot quote anyone saying how nice they were, what a great aunt, uncle, or mother. That’s, uh., wrong.
CAROL SUTTON LEOIS: That makes sense to me. That’s kinda- that’s not particularly relevant to who they were.
KATIE HAFNER: It’s not. Regardless, the whole episode proved to everyone who wasn’t paying attention that something was seriously wrong with the way we profile women. The Finkbeiner test really took off at that point.
CHRISTIE ASHWANDEN: People wrote to me directly, saying that this is why we need Finkbeiner testing.
KATIE HAFIN: But there was also resistance.
CAROL SUTTON LESWIS: What do we do about the entire series?
KATIE HAFINER: Carol, you are having some problems with the Finkbeiner test.
CAROL SUTTON LESIS: Yes. It’s fundamentally too rigid. When I first heard about this test, my reaction was that I understood the concept. The stroganoff example is absurd. I mean, who would want to start a discussion about someone who is a rocket scientist when it comes to how they cook? Although I found it offensive, the reaction to it swung things so much to the opposite side. She has a set of rules that dictates that you cannot discuss anything about her other than work. It’s ridiculous, and I don’t think I would want to read a profile with none of this. It’s reasonable to expect that you will learn more about someone if they create a profile. I’ll just start with that. Fundamentally, I find the idea of erasing all personal information simply because it isn’t relevant to the science in this case a little rigid.
KATIEHAFNER: It’s a little rigid and doesn’t really give a complete picture of the person. One comment I read about the Finkbeiner test is this: “Well, what if Einstein was written while looking out at Princeton. I was petting Pookie his cockatoo and thought, I’d love to know that.” [Carol giggles] But, the point they were making is that no one would write such a thing about Einstein. Isn’t that amazing detail?
But, if you take a look at Finkbeiner rules they aren’t saying to eliminate a person’s entire life. It’s more like they are saying, remove the details that are really about emphasizing that she is a woman. Here’s Christie Aschwanden again
CHRISTIE ASHWANDEN: Ann was pointing out details that are gendered. These are stereotypes that she was trying to avoid. These details are reinforced by using these framings or mentioning them. Ann and I are not arguing that female scientists shouldn’t mentor their students or that they can’t be role models. These roles are the most important. If you frame women in these roles in a primary way, it takes away the fact that this is a truly competent, good, and notable scientist. Let’s make that the center of our conversation.
CAROL SUTTON LEOIS: I agree that the profile should not be focusing on your husband’s job and childcare arrangements more than the scientific work you are doing. It’s a matter of balance. But, you know what? I want to hear more about childcare. I’ve interviewed so many parents to create my parenting podcast. Many women CEOs are so open to sharing their business practices. We do it all. There is no division. It doesn’t matter if you are professional or personal.
Okay so here’s my question. Why is it necessary to remove all information from women’s profiles. Why not include more of this information in the profiles of men?
KATIE HAFIN: Yes, Ann and Christie heard that critique before. Here’s Ann answering that question.
ANNFINKBEINER – People were asking if the personal details of scientists should not be included in profiles of male scientists. We should try to humanize the images of scientists. My answer is that humanizing scientists is something we most want to do, but not with these details. Because many people have problems with childcare and spousal work, you’re writing a profile about a scientist. The research is what makes scientists interesting. Andrea Ghez would not be welcome on my front porch. What I want to know is why she followed that star around the black hole so long.
KATIEHAFNER: Does context matter? Let’s take, for example, Andrea Ghez-that Vanity Fair wanted her profile, that would be one thing. Scientific American is completely different. A Times profile would be entirely different. What do you think?
ANNFINKBEINER – I believe Christie answered that question in her post. In creating the Finkbeiner Test she stated, “If you wouldn’t say it to a man, why would it to a woman?”
KATIE HAFNER: Right…
CHRISTIE SCHWANDEN: Yes, I stand by it. I mean it. I don’t think so. I’m not even moved by the idea that we should talk about men’s childcare arrangements. It’s like, “No, we don’t.” This is about their science. The reason they are being featured in such high-profile media is that they’re good scientists. This is not to suggest that there aren’t instances when other biases and society drive, you see, who gets attention and who does not. I believe part of this is about resolving that.
KATIE HAFIN: Ann and Christie were firm. But just when I thought we were officially Finkbeiner losers Christie made it clear that this test doesn’t apply to all things written about women.
CHRISTIE SCHWANDEN: Ann and I have been misunderstanding that the Finkbeiner tests are not about the profiles of scientists. We don’t think anyone should ever write about discrimination or barriers to women in science. If you write a story about discrimination in science, or the barriers women have overcome, that’s one thing. It’s perfectly acceptable to do this. We’re saying that not every story about a woman scientist has to be about her gender.
KATIE HAFIN: You should take the stroganoff test.
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Yeah, right?
ANNFINKBEINER : That’s what you should call it.
KATIEHAFNER: Carol, it is clear that the Finkbeiner test does not apply to all situations. Ann, even Ann, admits that she sometimes breaks the rules. It doesn’t really apply to the type of work we do. Christie claimed that this was for profiles. But what we are doing is biographies, the kind of biography that you would put in a book. It is a complete story of a person’s whole life. It’s both the personal and professional, all mixed together. It gives listeners a sense that they are part of the whole person.
CHRISTIE SCHWANDEN: A biography of someone will need to describe some of the obstacles they faced, how they overcame them, and all that. But that’s another beast. You would hope it would highlight the things that make them interesting, such as their work.
KATIE HAFNER: Mm-hmm.
CAROL SUTTON LEOIS: What I haven’t found out is that they want people to be inspired and motivated by the actual work this person, who is not gender-neutral, has done. However, I believe that there is another level of inspiration when someone has overcome obstacles and has overcome barriers to get there. They suggest that you only write about it if you are writing about that specific topic, such as a story about someone breaking through a barrier. As I see it, when you write about the story of someone discovering something, it is important to include the discrimination. It boils down to a very limited and specific style of writing about scientific research that someone does. This makes all the sense in my opinion.
KATIEHAFNER: I keep coming back at your objection, Carol. If equality is what we are trying to achieve, why not remove this information from women’s profiles and add it to men’s? There are many ways to promote gender equality in science and science writing. Not everyone agrees on the best way to do it. Ann wrote an article about women in astronomy for Scientific American earlier this month. She was surprised by the desire of younger scientists to be covered. It wasn’t what she expected.
ANNFINKBEINER: I went into that article thinking they would say that they lived in a post-Finkbeiner world. They were no longer women astronomers. They were just astronomers. That’s what I thought that I would hear. But that’s not the truth. [laughs]
KATIE HAFIN: What did you hear?
ANNFINKBEINER: Instead making themselves astronomers they made astronomy women. They just said, “Look at it, this is who you are.” This is how an astronomer looks. We wear dresses to give talks, as you know. We- we discuss our children in faculty meetings. Every single time, we call you out. You may harass us professionally or sexually, but it’s not over.
CAROL SUTTON LEOIS: Okay, I’m not sure if I would call this making astronomy a female job–astronomy isn’t gender-specific–but these young women have the right idea. This argument is a longstanding one for feminism. As a young law associate, my outfit was a tailored suit with an embroidered bow. We wanted to be as close to the men’s suits as possible so that we wouldn’t blend in with the younger associates. I cringe when thinking about those terrible suits with the paisley bowties and that was the uniform.
I think that this way of thinking that men do it legally, and we have to do them the same way. Men don’t talk much about these things so we shouldn’t. This is a long-held, but controversial view of feminism and – and owning your femininity. The pendulum has swung completely in the favor of women wearing whatever they like in law offices. Nobody is suggesting that they are less effective lawyers because they do it. This idea that women should be treated the same way as men makes it acceptable for everyone. I think the younger generation thinks that this is unacceptable.
KATIEHAFNER: I think that we have made our decision here at Lost Women of Science. We don’t believe we have to remove the woman from astronomy, physics, chemistry, or any other science. This means that we will talk about it all, the firsts, sexism and the professional, as well as the cockatoos or the black holes. And if we do break any Finkbeiner rules, so be it.
CAROL SUTTON LWIS: This podcast was produced and edited by Elah Feder, with the help of Hilda Gitchell, Ashraya Gupta and others. Subscribe to your podcast player to ensure you don’t miss the next season or any upcoming Lost Women of Science shorts.
Lost Women of Science was funded in part by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and The John Templeton Foundation. This foundation fosters conversations about living meaningful and purposeful lives.
This podcast is distributed and published by PRX in partnership with Scientific American .
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Thank you for listening.