How Not to Talk About Women in Science

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photo via Nature
photo via Nature

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? It’s a schema dreamed up by graphic novelist Alison Bechdel that asks three simple questions of a given work of art:  does it feature two female characters with names? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man? Not so difficult, right? Actually, you might be surprised (or perhaps not surprised at all, if you’ve been paying attention) at all the films that fail the Bechdel test:  The Social Network, the (original) Star Wars trilogy, Slumdog Millionaire, The Princess Bride, Trainspotting, When Harry Met Sally… I could go on, but I’ll stop. The Bechdel test exposed the lack of female presence in Hollywood films; now Johns Hopkins professor/acclaimed science writer Ann Finkbeiner has come up with a similar test (the unimaginatively-named “Finkbeiner test”) for stories and profiles about women in science.

Finkbeiner set out the criteria for her test in a post on Double X Science. To pass, a story about a female scientist cannot 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…”

It’s not that these things aren’t interesting or important, Finkbeiner notes, but that “when you emphasize a woman’s sex, you inevitably end up dismissing her science.” As an example of how not to do it, Finkbeiner points to a 2002 profile of Vera Rubin in Science, which mentions her sex or gender roles in 12 of its 24 paragraphs, and devotes only 4 to her scientific accomplishments — “and she was the one who found dark matter,” Finkbeiner exclaims. Or take the Guardian profile of physicist Lisa Randall, in which the writer points out that she’s 43 and has to hurry up and have children if she wants them.

Finkbeiner, who teaches in the university’s science writing MA program and often writes about scientists both male and female, is taking action on her own terms. “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,” she told Double X Science. “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.”



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