Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

The Future of Science Reports: The Finkbeiner Test


“Woman must be focused inwards where her children are, where her home is”, the Russian Orthodox bishop Kirill proclaimed yesterday.

He added that he is not opposed to women having a career, but went on to describe women as “the guardians of the family fire, the centre of family life” and that they should prioritise accordingly.

Unlike the mighty Kirill, the rest of us have moved on from such delusions.

We think.

Looking at reports of female scientist in the media, the stories most often revolve around her gender, her children and how she fits her research around her family. I know this is ver much an ‘all women in media’ kind of problem and not unique to women in science. Stories about women sooner or later reach the topic of their fertility. Sometimes that is crucial information because it is the point of the piece. But something that you would expect from a science story is that it focuses on research and possibly discoveries.

Someone that grew tired of this was science writer Ann Finkbeiner, who back in January this year vowed in a blog post to keep the focus for her next piece on a woman only on science.
She had recently spent much time interviewing many female physicists and astronomers and got insight into how the very few women in these predominantly male fields were treated differently. In light of that, she wanted to move past changing the society and pretend gender didn’t matter and thus just deal with the science.

Finkbeiner’s colleague Christie Aschwanden provided more insight into what lead up to this decision:
“I asked her [Finkbeiner] if there was a particular story that epitomized the problem, and she pointed me to this two page profile of Vera Rubin, published in Science in 2002. (Full text is behind a paywall, sorry.) Twelve of the story’s 24 paragraphs mention Rubin’s sex or gender roles. “Four paragraphs on her science, and she was the one who found dark matter,” Finkbeiner says.”

Aschwanden’s own conclusion is:
“It’s time to stop this nonsense. We don’t write “Redheads in Science” articles, so why do we keep writing about scientists in the context of their gonads? Sexism exists, and we should call it out when we see it. But treating female scientists as special cases only perpetuates the idea that there’s something extraordinary about a woman doing science.”

And in the spirit of cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel who created ‘the Bechdel Test’ to measure gender bias in film, Aschwanden has proposed a Finkbeiner test for science writing.

To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

Luckily, according to Aschwanden there are stories out there that do pass the test. So, hopefully the next time you read a profile on a researcher that happens to be a woman, you apply the Finkbeiner Test and it will pass.

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