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Blog

The Finkbeiner test

By Margaret Harris

Here’s a little game for you to play the next time you read a profile of a woman in science. As you read the article, count the number of times it mentions:

The fact that she is a woman
Her husband’s job
Her childcare arrangements
How she acts as a “nurturing figure” towards junior scientists
How she was taken aback by the competitiveness of her field
That she’s a “role model” for other women
How she’s the “first woman to…”

If the article’s total score is anything other than zero, then it fails the Finkbeiner test.

The name comes from a blog post by the science journalist Ann Finkbeiner in which she discusses the unequal ways that men and women in science are portrayed in the media. At the end of the post, she announces that the next time she’s asked to write an article about a prominent female astronomer, she’s not going to mention any of the things on the list above.  Instead, she declares, “I’m going to write about her as if she’s just an astronomer.”

When I mentioned Finkbeiner’s blog post to Physics World’s editor Matin Durrani, he winced.  Back in May 2001, it seems, we failed the Finkbeiner test in a pretty spectacular way by publishing a profile of Cherry Murray (then a vice-president at Bell Labs) that devoted fully one-third of a page to explaining “how she manages to combine a high-flying career and motherhood”.  It gets worse: by chance, Murray’s profile appeared right next to a similar type of article on a male scientist, the astronomer David Southwood.  The difference between the two profiles is, to put it mildly, stark.  As one reader, Liz Parvin, pointed out in a letter to the editor the following month, the profile of Southwood did not even mention whether or not he has children – much less explain “how he manages to combine a high-flying career and fatherhood!”.

Parvin, who is now a senior lecturer at the Open University, concluded her letter by suggesting that this sort of attitude is as unfair to men as it is to women.  The atomic physicist (and father-of-two) Chad Orzel seems to agree.  Writing about the Finkbeiner test on his blog this week, he argues that rather than banishing childcare questions from profiles of female scientists, it would be much better to add them to profiles of men. “It’s not the content of the questions that’s a problem,” he explains.  “The problem is that they’re asked unequally, and even more importantly the underlying assumptions explaining why they’re asked unequally” – which include the assumption that male scientists like him won’t, or shouldn’t, have to worry about childcare.

I definitely see where Orzel is coming from, but a couple of really egregious profiles I’ve read post-Finkbeiner have got me thinking that a two-pronged approach may be necessary.  While I agree that journalists should start asking male scientists how they manage to “have it all”, I also think we should stop asking that same question of women, at least for a little while.  Because unfortunately, Physics World isn’t the only publication with some well-meaning “Finkbeiner fails” in its archive, and it’s going to take a lot of “pretending that she’s just an astronomer” to balance all of them out.

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12 comments

  1. It is interesting just how pervasive, and how unconscious, the gender bias pointed out by Finkbeiner really is. Reread that last sentence by Ms. Harris: I don’t think she really _meant_ to imply that astronomers who are women aren’t actually real astronomers at all, but that’s what comes out from “*pretending* that she’s just an astronomer.” [emphasis added].

    One would presume that a professional astronomer, doing active research, *is* “just an astronomer,” regardless of gender. No pretending required.

  2. Michael, the “pretend she’s just an astronomer” quote was from my original blog post, and in that context should be read as, I’m going to pretend the gender bias hoo-ha doesn’t exist. I hope no one else read it the way you did. Erk.

    • Simon Coe

      Unfortunately on not reading your previous blog post before this one I also thought the choice of the word “pretending” was odd until I read Michael and your comments.

    • Thank you so much for the reply, Ms. Finkbeiner. I hadn’t remembered that both statements were quoted from your blog. At the beginning of this item, you were quoted as writing, “I’m going to write about her as if she’s just an astronomer,” which I recalled and which I read exactly as you (I believe) intended. The second quote at the end just seemed to have a very different tone.

      I appreciate the clarification, and also appreciate the positive attention your post seems to have been getting. Gender bias is something I struggle with internally (as a getting-older white male), and something I hope my daughter won’t have to deal with in her career.

    • roy

      Rather than getting agitated about gender specific items(comments etc) about women, women should realize that these ‘items’ came into existence only because they(these items) agitate women, which I’m sure can be considered as primary male function. Thus, all other beings happen to acquire natural appendages, during mating season at least, to agitate the females, whereas for men, such gender specific outlook will have to ensure that(agitating the females) throughout the year.

    • Reviving an old blog post. Ms. Finkbeiner’s profie of Andrea Ghez is out in Nature (http://www.nature.com/news/astronomy-star-tracker-1.12622), and it is most excellent.

  3. Larry Rosenthal

    I read the “just pretend” as intended, and had to go back and reread it to find another interpretation. Never found it. Huh.

  4. Great post! I too think that we should pay attention to scientists as fathers, since children are a large part of life if one has them, whether male or female. I love too, how the article points out our subconscious biases. This is a conversation worth having.

  5. More discussion of the whys and hows of the Finkbeiner test here: http://www.doublexscience.org/the-finkbeiner-test/

    I’m really glad to see Physics World thinking about these issues.

  6. I am glad to see the discussion on the Finkbeiner test. I have to admit that a couple of articles about my research do not pass the Finkbeiner test. We need to influence men around us,too, not just accepted it as is. On March 8th, I forwarded the “New guidelines for gender equity in science” from the Australian Academy of Science to a male colleague and he replied “is this the girl thing?”

  7. Anonymous

    I’m glad to see this discussion going. I agree that it is great to add the question about children to male scientists. But also please consider that this is a personal question for all of us. As a woman, I HATE answering that question, and it makes me uncomfortable in an interview situation. I don’t have children, but it is *not* because choose to dedicate my life solely to my scientific career. It is a very sore spot in my life and I really don’t want people to probe my personal life in that way (unless they are a good friend). I’m sure I’m not the only one.

  8. Marty Downs

    References to previous blog posts aside, I read it as “pretending she’s *just* an astronomer,” that is, pretending she’s not also a wife, partner, mother, musician, artist, woodworker, whatever–which is the intended meaning, I think, but might have required an assist from italics or other emphasis

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