The Finkbeiner Test

What matters in stories about women scientists?

By Christie Aschwanden

Men dominate most fields of science. This is not news, and countless projects have sprung up to address the disparity. There are associations, fellowships, conferences, and clubs for women in science, and with these, efforts to highlight women who are making it in these fields.

Campaigns to recognize outstanding female scientists have led to a recognizable genre of media coverage. Let’s call it “A lady who…” genre. You’ve seen these profiles, of course you have, because they’re everywhere. The hallmark of “A lady who…” profile is that it treats its subject’s sex as her most defining detail. She’s not just a great scientist, she’s a woman! And if she’s also a wife and a mother, those roles get emphasized too.

For instance, in a profile of biologist Jill Bargonetti, The New York Times quotes one of Bargonetti’s colleagues saying that, “Jill makes a fantastic role model…because she is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying this about a scientist named Bill. The story’s subtitle piles on, reinforcing the stereotype that women are nurturing and selfless with “A Biologist’s Choice Gives Priority to Students.”

The headline on this recent profile of neuropsychologist Brenda Milner in The Globe and Mail reads, “A scientific pioneer and a reluctant role model.” The piece explains that “Dr. Milner was determined to compete with the best scientists, male or female” and that “Her resistance to being recognized as an outstanding woman seems to stem from her desire to be a great scientist in general.” Yet the article fixates on Milner’s sex as if it’s the most remarkable thing about her. The occasion for the piece, Milter’s induction into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, warrants only a few sentences.

Ann Finkbeiner, my colleague at Last Word On Nothing, has had enough. As she explained here yesterday, she plans to write about an impressive astronomer and “not once mention that she’s a woman.” It’s not that Finkbeiner objects to drawing attention to successful female scientists. She’s produced many of these stories herself. The issue, she says, is that when you emphasize a woman’s sex, you inevitably end up dismissing her science.

I asked her 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. “Two Four paragraphs on her science, and she was the one who found dark matter,” Finkbeiner says.

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.

So Finkbeiner has adopted a new approach. “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 says. “And I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman.” In other words, “I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.”

It’s a fine idea. In the spirit of the Bechdel test, a metric that cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel created to measure gender bias in film, I’d like to propose a Finkebeiner test for stories about women in science. The test could apply to profiles of women in other fields, too.

To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story 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…”


Here’s another trick. Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story. For instance, in his Guardian profile of preeminent physicist Lisa Randall, John Crace writes, “No matter how much she bends time, there’s no escaping the fact that she’s just turned 43 and that if she wants to have kids she’s going to have to get on with it soon.” No one would possibly write such a thing about a man of her age and status.

Yes, there are seven items on the Finkbeiner test, but it’s easy to pass, if only you try. James Gorman’s profile of biologist Hopi Hoekstra in The New York Times last month exemplifies how it’s done. In the piece, Gorman conveys Hoekstra’s accomplishments, her management style, and her character without ever putting her into a gender roles box. Over at Smithsonian, Virginia Morell’s profile of climate researcher Susan Solomon passes the test, and so does Steve Kemper’s story about biologist Kay Holekamp. These stories make great reads, because they focus on outstanding research and follow a simple rule of thumb, in case you forget the seven items on the Finkbeiner test: Write about the subject as if she’s just a scientist.

[Christie Aschwanden is a health columnist for the Washington Post. She’s written for dozens of other publications, including Slate, New Scientist, Smithsonian, Runner’s World and O, the Oprah Magazine. She blogs about science at Last Word On Nothing.]

Image credit: Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Erratum: Change made at 1:41 ET to correct paragraph number in quote about Rubin from two to four.


92 thoughts on “The Finkbeiner Test

  1. I love the idea of a Finkbeiner test! I wonder if it really makes sense to include “how she nurtures her underlings” as a thing to avoid, though. Sure, mentoring of grad students might get mentioned in more stories about women than men, but it’s an important and worthwhile thing to be doing, and very relevant to the scientific enterprise. I’d like to read profiles of male scientists that describe how they nurture their underlings.

  2. I think this is a fantastic idea. One of the other issues with “wife-woman-scientist-mother” frameworks is that they can be very heteronormative, and they reinforce the idea that women who choose not to have kids are oddities. I -do- still think that, for the sake of solidarity, stories that fail the Finkbeiner test are important for building solidarity and highlighting the particular issues women face. They just shouldn’t be the default narrative, or the prevalent one, and there are better people than others to be writing those (like the women themselves).

  3. Great post! I agree with Jaquelyn, that kind of piece does have a place, especially when people want to talk about being a woman in science, balancing career etc, but it bugs me that the vast majority of pieces about female scientists have to reference her “long, athletic build”, or “she still bakes cookies for lab meetings!”.

    • Yes, exactly! There are places to have that conversation, definitely. But as you point out, it shouldn’t be the ubiquitous one. And there shouldn’t be such big differences in how we write about male and female scientists. Not writing about dads in science, for example, isn’t helpful, either, while we’re at it.

  4. I think this is a splendid notion. If the point is identifying great science, things like the gender of the scientist are best relegated to footnotes, if relevant at all.

    It may well be significant that a noted female scientist has successfully balanced the demands of practicing science, *and* being a parent, but it’s the topic of a completely different article. Issues of work/life balance, and doing a job *and* having kids are not unique to the sciences.

    And comments about nurturing simply reinforce sex-role stereotypes. Male scientists can be nurturing and serve as role models to students and junior colleagues, and I’ve no doubt you could find female scientists who can’t. The notion that women do this and men don’t is questionable to put it mildly.

    I hope Finkbeiner’s idea catches on.

  5. Great idea — would love to see this approach become more common.

    One minor quibble in your write-up:

    ‘“No matter how much she bends time, there’s no escaping the fact that she’s just turned 43 and that if she wants to have kids she’s going to have to get on with it soon.” No one would possibly write such a thing about a man of her age and status.’

    Sexism aside, you can’t write that about a man because of an actual biological fact. (There’s no male equivalent of menopause — or if there is, it doesn’t prevent reproduction.) Not that that necessarily excuses it; I just think there are cleaner examples (like the rest of the ones provided here).

    • Surely men have to think about increasing age if they want to have kids, even if they don’t have a literal “menopause.” But you don’t see people commenting that male scientists over 40 are going to want to start thinking about having kids soon if they want to make it to their high school graduations, marriages, see their grandkids, etc…

      I think the point still stands.

    • The problem that makes it sexist is that no one assumes men must have kids to avoid being failures at life, whereas they do this for women. “Well she discovered Phlebotinum but she needs to pop out a kid because WOMAN!” <— That's sexist.

    • There is plenty of evidence that older men, though usually capable of impregnation, provide lower quality sperm. Responsible men and women should not put off making babies if they are concerned about the health of their children. See “paternal age effect.”

    • No, but if as a man you CAN have a child at >50 it does not mean it is a good idea, there are increasing suspects that some congenital problems increase in frequency with the age of the father, and you will be old and tired before the kids are adult

  6. It’s great to have gender equality and all that. I am all for reading a story about a scientist that does not make too much of her gender.

    In the spirit of all that, may I humbly suggest that this site’s name be changed to something more inclusive as well? How is the double X in the name relevant to science? It isn’t, right?


  7. I agree, for the most part, although I for one would love to see a bit of a shift the other way, too. I’d love to hear about a MALE scientist’s kids. What his wife does. All that. I think the work-life balance discussion is important, and it’s important to see that a lot of men have to work on it, too.

    • I ‘m glad to see I wasn’t the only one thinking this. :) Science is done by people, not ageless, sexless automatons. In reading a profile of someone’s work, other aspects of their lives are interesting as well; it’s part and parcel of who they are and what they do, after all.

  8. Great post! But… there absolutely SHOULD be articles about “Redheads in Science”.

  9. I like the idea of trying to redress the balance, but I’m not sure that taking all the human interest out of the story is necessarily the way to go. If I’m reading about a scientist I want to know all about that scientist, what life experience they bring to their work that might influence how they work and how they choose their questions. That doesn’t mean I want the science to be sidelined, just that I think, as Rachael French has written above, that I want to hear about male scientists family choices too. I think it helps make their work seem more approachable if you can find some hook, some way to relate their life to your own. If that all makes sense.

  10. I think “First woman to…” can be important to note, depending on the nature of the story. It’s important not to make the person out to be a novelty, but “first” at anything is notable, IMHO.

      • The difference is that redheads (generally) haven’t been actively discriminated against in the field, and therefore it’s not quite so notable as “first woman in space.” I do see the point, though.

        • Yep, agreed. Really enjoyed this piece and think it’s very true, but given the institutional biases against female scientists (especially when writing retrospectively), I think it’d be odd *not* to note this. Barack Obama’s skin colour is hardly his defining feature, but any summary of his presidency would have to note that he was the first African-American president, no? Similarly, say you wanted to write a profile of the chemist Edith Flanigen – would it be wrong to note that she was the first female recipient of the Perkin Medal?

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  12. Insightful article. You should let go of feminism and become an MRA. Equal protection under the law for all, equal protection of government for all.

    • Feminism is already the word for seeking political, social and economic equality between men and women. In case you didn’t get the memo, MRAs, being opposed to feminisim, seek to maintain, extend and entrench existing inequality.

  13. I agree with the main point that you are making about the sexist representation of women scientists here.

    But, I also think that we need to be very careful about erasing the disability, gender identity and trans* status of scientists, because ‘all that should matter’ is their science. Until media representation and popular cultural images of science stop being of cis straight able bodied white dudes in lab coats, we need to hammer home the fact that this is NOT who scientists are. Only by emphasizing the fact that scientists are diverse will we continue to recruit and retain diversity in science.

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  15. I agree with many of the comments above, particularly scicurious and jaquellyn. I think a woman’s scientific achievement should be celebrated and reported without her family set-up being brought into the equation. More importantly, why is your gender important at all, it should be the science that takes center stage! Having said that, as a female PhD student, learning about how other women in academia (not just science) cope with balancing a family life and a successful career are interesting to me and I value the discussions on the subject.

    • I absolutely agree. But I’d put that valuable and useful information in a talk or newsletter or maybe even journal article, something whose audience was only scientists. For the general public, I’d rather talk about the scientist only as a scientist. And I don’t mean I’d talk only about the science; I think motivation and stubbornness and reactiveness and preferences in colleagues — etc. — would belong in a profile of a scientist too.

  16. I’m all for talking about scientists as people, though I’m not sure their home lives are the most interesting thing about them. But yes, men scientists have home lives too and to repeat what I said in a comment on Facebook, I’ve even done those interviews, only I didn’t realize it at the time. I’d be interviewing some guy, he’d get a phone call, talk for a while, then say he had to leave early because the kid was sick or the kid needed to be picked up early or the wife had to get to a meeting. One couple at the same university kept the kid in a stroller and just rolled it from one office to the other, depending on the parents’ schedule. And I’d ask what the wife’s job was but all this seemed so mundane I didn’t put it into the story. Same thing applies for Christie’s Finkbeiner (I am SO honored) test’s other criteria about nurturing/competing/role modelling: that’s just part of any scientist’s job, they do it well or badly according to their characters.
    I’m not sure what I’m getting at here but it’s something like the mundanity of the personal lives of most people, male or female, that doesn’t seem interesting in a profile of a scientist.

  17. This is amazing, thank you for it.

    As a scientist and humorous feminism/science blogger, I run a blog where I particularly enjoy calling out bad science reporting. Most recently, a coworker brought my attention to the work of Professor Barbara Casadei, who was reviewed by a little magazine run by the British Heart Foundation, her funding body. So I look at the article and it’s TERRIBLE. It’s actually called “Lady in the Lab,” referencing the fact that her husband is a Sir. The article opens with:

    “Barbara Casadei doesn’t exactly fit the traditional stereotype of a science professor. Slim and elegant with long, blonde hair and oozing charisma, she’d look just as at home on the society pages of Tatler as in a lab.”

    So I wrote an entire blog post pointing out the problems with the article, ranging from offensively sexist to actively discouraging to young women in science, I encouraged my readers to contact the BHF (they did!) and wrote to them myself, suggesting that among other things, they might wish to call the Professor by her title, not her first name, and to omit sexualized descriptions of her.

    They just wrote back to me stating that they weren’t interested in changing the article, but that I would look forward to seeing their exciting new article on “PhD Student Mary Sue.”

    I wrote back that my colleague Mary Sue has actually been a postdoc for a reasonable amount of time, and warmly suggested that they address her by her correct title in their piece.

    Anyway, hate to plug, but I’m collecting anecdotes by female scientists about science culture; I’d love to hear anything you guys can add.

  18. I really like the critique here but I have to say that I sometimes value the discussions that these articles contain in terms of (a) raising awareness about the difficulties women have faced in ‘breaking through’ and (b) how they might have more inclusive mentoring styles. Perhaps, in addition to more articles that don’t focus on female scientists’ gender, wee could also see some that focus us explicitly on the masculinity of male scientists. I look forward to seeing men’s perplexed reactions when asked about their childcare arrangements!

  19. I’d say that applying the Finkbeiner rule is probably contextual and also generalizable. If you’re writing a feature-type “lifestyle” profile of someone, regardless of their profession or sex, you’d probably include some personal detail, etc., although you’d certainly still need to ask yourself, “Would I be writing about/including this particular detail for a male scientist (or conversely, would I be *excluding* this detail)?” And it’d be a great idea to exercise care in whether or not you choose examples or language, consciously or not, that communicate a gender stereotype (like the folding laundry–yes, it’s a mundane activity and could well have been juxtaposed for that reason, but … clearly, it has certain connotations). Indeed, I’d suggest that these tests apply to writing about anyone when the focus is what they do professionally. And if you’re writing a news story covering a scientific finding/breakthrough/hot result, etc., there’s NO NEED to introduce these details or allusions to “feminine” aspects like “nurturing” into the story, as the specific examples in the post attest. Write about the science.

  20. I think Emily nailed it in her comment, “the Finkbeiner rule is probably contextual and also generalizable.” It’s one thing to consider the obstacles that someone has faced because of her sex. We can and should call out sexism and discrimination when we see it. But let’s stop treating women as if their sex is the most interesting thing about them. We should not be defined by our gonads or our gender roles.

  21. I am from Western Siberia. AM teaching gender studies at a state university. For me the mentioning of the sex of the scientist is important since sometimes I can’t say from the name which sex the person is. therefore, I would suggest that somehow it should be mentioned.

    • But why does the gender matter? I mean, unless you’re just building up a catalog male and female names in other cultures, the point is that in an article about a scientist, the article should be about the science.

  22. I agree with Emily Wallingham above. Whether we like it or not, women who succeed in male dominated environments act as inspirational role models for their female peers, and for younger women following them up the same career track. Sometimes, when I see or hear about a successful woman I do wonder whether she has children and, if she has, I am even more admiring and interested to learn about her and from her. Once women and men are equally represented at all levels in science, these factors will be equally relevant or irrelevant of both sexes. Sadly we are not there yet!

  23. CBC Radio’s “Quirks and Quarks” is a weekly science show. I am consistently impressed by the number of women scientists that they interview and they only ever talk about the science. I would say that all their pieces pass the Finkbeiner Test.

  24. I like this. Scientists, engineers, doctors (those who study and develop the sciences) should be recognized due to their accomplishments. I don’t care that Enstein was jewish or male – I care that he figured out the relationship between matter and energy. I don’t care about Issiac Newton’s ideas about feminism, I respect that he developed the mathmatical field of Calculus. I can respect anyone for what they do. Who cares what sex someone is, what race they belong to, their religious backround or even their political phiosophy as long as they advance human technology, understanding or society.

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  27. I LOVE the Finkbeiner test! “How she nurtures her underlings” is particularly repellent. Gah.

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  29. It is remarkable that Albert Einstein, for example, was able to overcome the well-known problems of violence and impulsiveness of boys and men, and complete some astounding research. Early in his career, Albert Einstein became the first man to elucidate special relativity, the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and stimulated emission, all in one year. We asked Einstein what advice he has for other men who hope to follow in his footsteps…

  30. I love the idea of this test. I sometimes catch myself highlighting female scientists as such to my daughter, but that’s because I want her to see that yes, there are lots of women in science. When she was three she got the idea from observing Daddy’s workplace that women couldn’t be scientists (not for lack of his workplace trying to hire them…they have trouble hiring _anyone_ qualified, regardless of race or gender, and are perpetually understaffed). So ever since then I’ve been making an effort to point out all of the awesome women scientists around her.

    But I realize I may also be overcompensating as a nerdy SAHM, so I’ll try myself to mention it only when it’s relevant, because I think now at 7 she fully gets the idea that women can be and are scientists.


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  32. I’m completely behind the Finkbeiner Test.

    (In the interest of accuracy: Alison Bechdel did not create the Bechdel Test, though she did introduce/popularize it. In the words of the Wikipedia article you linked to: “Bechdel credited the idea for the test to a friend and karate training partner, Liz Wallace.”)

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  34. I remember a Doonesbury strip in which the characters are watching, reading or listening to a news report about a (male) politician or other dignitary giving a speech. The report was salted with references to the person’s hair, choice of clothing, age and that he was the “father of three.”

    I’d be grateful if anyone could tell me where to find this particular strip, as I would make use of it in discussions of bias in journalism.

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  38. I was lead here by an article on Yvonne Brill’s obituary in NYT’s. Although I agree with the fact that references to her cooking and motherly skills were at best uncalled for and at worst patronizing, I wonder about the last points of the Finkbeiner test : in this case, is her being at some point the *only* women in her field and encouraging female students to become scientist not worth mentionning? My point is, although I agree with the test regarding scientists of a younger generation, what about the work of the pioneering generation ? Should the writer who chooses to portrait such women bypass the context of their work and their most probable struggles as irrelevant?

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  41. But I do think that women tend to ask different questions than their male counterparts, and that having these different points of view can lead to tremendous progress in science. For example, Dr. Alice Stewart’s questions in her questionnaire solved the problem of childhood cancers – its not clear that a male doctor would have asked the same questions, or asked the mothers. See the NPR TedTalk Hour:

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  47. I’ll argue that we actually get the male Obits wrong. I think her son got this one right. What’s really important in life? Your profession??
    The things we do at home and in our communities are almost always more important than what we do at work. Who wants to be remembered as a “great accountant” or “great scientist”. I prefer to be remembered as a great Dad who set a good example, volunteered, could make my kids laugh, inspired them and maybe even cooked a mean hamburger on the grill. I know that is more important to my family than what I do for a living. Cheers!

    • But what made her a person of sufficient significance to have an obituary in the NYT was her science, not her family life. The ratio of mothers to rocket scientists in the world illustrates this.

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  54. I like this idea. By not focusing on gender we can actually judge a person on qualities and achievments as we should. The problem with todays work towards getting rid of sexism in general is that instead treating gender as something that is inconsequential to a person’s value they treat it as though it is important, but should be equal across the board. Only by genuinely disregarding non moral qualities such as gender can we start looking on what a person is really worth.

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  61. How about “Prof Bloggs has 3 children who he hardly ever sees because he’s working and networking so much. He has no child care problems though because his wife is a stay at home mum. She had a promising career as a scientist, but she sacrificed it to spend years following him around the world while he jobbed his way through the multiple short term postdoc contracts that are necessary to get anywhere in science, and bore his children while she was at it. He’s pretty rubbish at cooking, but that doesn’t matter because his wife does most if it, and the shopping. Sometimes she bakes muffins for his group meetings. Prof Bloggs has silver hair, slightly balding on top. He looks to be about a size 40 chest, though when I ask him his size, he laughs “well you’d have to ask my wife i haven’t bought myself a shirt for 30 years”.

  62. I can OneUp that. I have yet to see an article about women in the media that didn’t focus on what the woman was wearing. Then I discovered this Women in Science site for younger scientists and students, Scientista, and though cool, a new interesting site for women. Sure enough, they had an article front page on what a women scientist wears. I can’t get away from it!

  63. All good, except I want an exception for fields where women still are vanishingly rare. UCSF Magazine just now has a profile of its chair of surgery, i.e. boss of almost all the surgeons. Now, as at every other time in recent history, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of women who are chairs of surgery at university medical centers. (For most of history the count was zilch. Of course) And while this profile does break just about every Finkbeiner rule, the doc tells us that her husband (chief of transplant surgery) is the one who does a good job mentoring young surgeons. Her only soft spot is for patients.

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  68. Pretty great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I’ve really loved browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I am hoping you write once more very soon!

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  70. “Here’s another trick. Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.”

    This is a very powerful tool.

    Many years ago a friend showed me a piece in a book in which all gendered words were replaced by ones that reflected the person’s skin colour (he/she becoming whe/ble etc). The resulting passage was quite offensive, suggesting the original probably was too. Since then, I have used this approach when testing any statement for sexism.

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