Sexism In Science

About a month ago, The New York Times published a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching piece on Marguerite Perey. Credited with the discovery of radioactive compound francium, she soon after died a gruesome death as a consequence of prolonged exposure to radiation. The piece was in fact written by the great-great-niece of Perey, and praise for the brilliance of the writing spread like wildfire throughout science blogs and Twitter accounts. And while most of the excitement centered around the writing and the powerful story being told, there were a few mentions of how the piece was a rarity for passing the Finkbeiner test.

Founded in the same vein as the Bechdel test for fiction, the Finkbeiner test is a checklist for journalists and writers and seeks to report on female scientists without emphasis on gender. To pass the Finkbeiner test, the following cannot be mentioned: (1) the fact that the person of interest is a woman, (2) her husband’s job, (3) her child-care arrangements, (4) how she nurtures her underlings, (5) how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field, (6) how she’s such a role model for other women, (7) how she’s ‘the first woman to … ’ Named after journalist Ann Finkbeiner, the test was originally proposed in 2013 by Christie Aschwanden in response to articles in which gender roles were mentioned just as, or more frequently than, contributions to science (a Science profile on dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin is a notorious example). Finkbeiner declared, “ I’m going to cut to the chase, close my eyes, and pretend the problem is solved; we’ve made a great cultural leap forward and the whole issue is over with. And I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman. … I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.”

As a young female scientist, I applaud the movement. We truly need change in the way men and women are treated and portrayed in science. However, not all the items in Finkbeiner’s list move in the right direction. Instead, I would argue that both men and women should be asked personal questions, instead of completely eliminating them. It is slowly becoming more common for male scientists to stay home with children, or at least take a more active role in their care. Yet a study published last year found that this is often just as difficult for men as it is for women, and a male scientist that prioritizes his family is something to be celebrated, not ignored. Likewise, women who manage to have both children and career deserve to have both mentioned, for both are significant achievements. While family and mentoring activities should not constitute the majority of any profile focused on professional accomplishments, they add a dimension of human interest to the story, and can also encourage young scientists looking to follow in that scientist’s footsteps. Though admitting that many women leave, or do not pursue academic careers, for familial commitments does not fit the current push to involve more women in STEM fields, it is still a reality and hearing how young scientists (male or female) deal with adding children to the mix can be informative. Furthermore, being a ‘role model for other women’ is another admirable quality that should not be downplayed. As much as Ms. Finkbeiner would like to pretend that gender equality is in full swing, it unfortunately still is not, and if more women are going to be found in hard sciences, more female role models are still needed. This is a question that could easily be adjusted for a male subject, as good science role models can be exceedingly difficult to find regardless of gender. Again, these topics should not be a major component of a profile based on scientific accomplishments but should not necessarily always be shied away from.

Because unfortunately, even in 2015, complete gender equality in science remains out of reach. However, instead of disregarding the many talents and often underappreciated multi-tasking of female researchers, we should celebrate and credit the few male scientists beginning to make similar sacrifices. It is essential that we move past writing stereotypical articles—what Aschwanden refers to as ‘A lady who …’ genre of journalism—but by ignoring the exceedingly difficult paths that women typically have to navigate in research careers, we perpetuate the hardships. We do these women a disservice to pretend that their struggle is insignificant.