The Feminist Test We Keep Failing
There's a test that we at Lost Women of Science seem to fail again and again: the Finkbeiner Test.
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CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: I remember thinking, yeah, that's exactly what we should do. Let's just stop doing this. We're gonna stop making gender the front and center issue for every female scientist that's written about.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m Carol Sutton Lewis.
KATIE HAFNER: And I’m Katie Hafner. This is Lost Women of Science.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And today, we're talking about whether we got this show all wrong.
KATIE HAFNER: So Carol, I recently spoke with two science writers about something called the Finkbeiner test. Because ever since we started Lost Women of Science, we have become acutely aware of it.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Yep, absolutely
KATIE HAFNER: Absolutely. And for anyone who doesn't know, the Finkbeiner test is a list of rules for writing about female scientists without being sexist. It includes things like - don't mention the husband's job, don't talk about her childcare arrangements. It was created by a science writer named Christie Aschwanden, who was inspired by another science writer named Ann Finkbeiner. Unfortunately, or maybe just matter of factly, our show fails that test all the time. So I decided to do an interview with the two people who started the test about how they came up with these rules in the first place.
It turns out it all started in 2013 when Ann Finkbeiner got an assignment-
ANN FINKBEINER: -to write a profile of a very good astronomer, Andrea Ghez, G-H-E-Z.
KATIE HAFNER: Ghez is best known for discovering what appears to be a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. She and a colleague ended up winning a Nobel prize for that work a couple of years ago.
ANN FINKBEINER: So I was really happy with that assignment, but the assigning editor said, by the way, um—I mean we talked about her science—and then he said, by the way, I've heard that she and her husband have worked out childcare arrangements, and I've heard that she is a wonderful mentor for her graduate students.
KATIE HAFNER: And Ann started thinking about how many times she'd seen these same things mentioned in features about women—the childcare, the mentorship. There were other tropes too—the husband's job, how this woman was a role model for others, her triumph in the face of terrible sexism…
ANN FINKBEINER: And I was really, really tired of that storyline. I just didn't wanna write it again.
KATIE HAFNER: So she wrote this blog post. It was kind of a manifesto of how she was gonna write about women from now on.
ANN FINKBEINER: I said in the blog post, all the things that I was not going to do. I wasn't going to even mention that she was a woman. I wasn't going to mention that her husband had a job or what job it was. I wasn't gonna mention her childcare arrangements. // I wasn't gonna write about any of those things. I was gonna pretend she was just an astronomer and I was gonna write about her as an astronomer, period. Now, that blog post would have sat in the dust of our archives, except Christie got interested in it.
KATIE HAFNER: Christie Aschwanden sees Ann's post, and she thinks-
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Yeah, that's exactly what we should do. Let's just stop doing this. We're gonna stop making gender the front and center issue for every female scientist that's written about. So what I did- I read her blog post and I just took all of the things that Ann had said, you know, the things that she was not going to mention, and I sort of formalized them. So it's sort of a checklist. You're not to mention that she's a woman-
KATIE HAFNER: You're not to mention her husband's job
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: You're not to mention her childcare arrangements
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Or how she nurtures her underlings
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: How she's such a role model to other women
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: How she's the first woman to-
KATIE HAFNER: blah, blah, blah
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: I think the thing that all of these items have in common is that they really treat this scientist as though her gender is the most important and most remarkable thing about her.
KATIE HAFNER: So Carol, that sounds like a pretty reasonable argument, right? But the test doesn’t work out that well for us.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: No, it doesn’t. I certainly understand the concept of not making gender activity front and center, but erase it all together? That to me is a little extreme. I mean we failed this test—our whole concept fails the test. It's not even just any individual episode.
KATIE HAFNER: Yeah.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: It's like, according to this- what they just said, Lost Women of science should not exist.
KATIE HAFNER: Well, I did probe about whether there might be exceptions, but we’ll get to that. But in the meantime, here's what happened with the test itself. So Christie, she writes up her checklist, she names it the Finkbeiner Test, and that could have been the end of it-
ANN FINKBEINER: But then the New York Times ran an obituary of a woman rocket scientist. Her name was Yvonne Brill, B-R-I-L-L.
KATIE HAFNER: And she had developed this very fuel efficient rocket thruster that's used in satellites today, so really, really important work. This means that these rockets can carry less fuel and operate for longer. So of course she rises to the level of a New York Times obituary, but this is the first line of the obit, and I quote: She made a mean beef stroganoff, [Carol laughs] followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children. [Carol laughs]
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: I mean, the way he's set up this obituary, it's reinforcing this notion that the most important job that any woman can ever do is be a mother and a wife. That's your role as a woman, and once you've done those, it might be okay to be a rocket scientist. But it's only okay for her to be a rocket scientist because she's a spectacular mother and wife.
KATIE HAFNER: As you might imagine, people were not happy with the Times.
ANN FINKBEINER: They got such a fuss about that. They had to write one of those, um, public editor notes about it.
KATIE HAFNER: Oh, the public editor got involved?
ANN FINKBEINER: Yeah.
KATIE HAFNER: So Margaret Sullivan—that’s the public editor—condemned the article’s quote “emphasis on domesticity,” she said it undervalued Yvonne Brill’s groundbreaking scientific work. And on Twitter, to all her followers who’d tweeted about the obituary, Sullivan said, yup, she agreed. And she also shared a piece that offered a bit more perspective. It was an article from the Columbia Journalism Review all about…the Finkbeiner test.
KATIE HAFNER: And the New York Times changed the lead. I can say as someone who's written a lot of obituaries for the times, I can tell you that is a huge deal. Typically, to make a correction, something has to be factually just plain wrong. I mean, if she made a terrible stroganoff, that would be grounds for a change, right? [Carol laughs] But the- the stroganoff lead, it was really, really wrongheaded. So they changed it. And in the updated version, Yvonne Brill, goes from stroganoff-maker to quote brilliant rocket scientist. But still by Finkbeiner rules, it's a mess. The lead still mentions her husband and children, and then her son calls her the world's best mom, which just by the way, the rules for writing a New York Times obit dictate that one is not supposed to quote anybody saying what a nice person, what a great mom, aunt, uncle the person was. So that's, uh, that's wrong to begin with.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Yeah, that makes sense to me. I mean, that's kind of- that's not particularly germane to who they were.
KATIE HAFNER: It's not. So anyway, this whole episode made it clear to anyone who hadn't been paying attention that there was something really wrong with how we profile women. And that's when the Finkbeiner test really took off.
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: People were writing to me directly like, this is why we need the Finkbeiner test.
KATIE HAFNER: But there was pushback too.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: When we come back– the pushback, and what do we do about this entire series?
KATIE HAFNER: So Carol, you have some issues with the Finkbeiner test.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Yes, I do. Fundamentally, it’s that it’s too rigid. My reaction when I first learned about this test was I get the concept. Certainly, that stroganoff example is ridiculous. I mean, who would start a discussion of someone who's a rocket scientist with how they cook? I agree that was offensive, but the reaction to that swung the pendulum so much to the other side with these rigid set of rules that you can never mention anything that has to do with her- her self outside of work. It's just unreasonable, and I'm not sure I wanna read a profile that has none of that in it. I mean, if it's a profile of someone, there's some expectation you're gonna learn a little bit more about them than what they have discovered. So I'll just start there. That just fundamentally, the concept of removing all personal information because it's not germane to the science in this example is a little rigid to me.
KATIE HAFNER: Little rigid, and also it just doesn't give a whole picture of the person. In some of these things that I've been reading about the Finkbeiner test, there's this one comment in reaction to a post that says something like, well, what if we wrote Einstein while staring out at Princeton, was petting his cockatoo, Pookie, and I thought, I'd actually love to know that. [Carol laughs] And- but the point they were making was no one would write that about Einstein. And yet, isn't that a wonderful detail?
KATIE HAFNER: But if you look at Finkbeiner rules, they're not actually saying to cut out a person's entire personal life. It’s more like they're saying, take out the kinds of details that are really about emphasizing the fact that she’s a woman. Here’s Christie Aschwanden again
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: You know, all of these particular details that Ann was calling out are things that are very gendered, that are gender stereotypes that I think she was very carefully trying to avoid. And just by mentioning them or using these framings, you're sort of reinforcing those gender norms. I don't think neither Ann nor I is arguing that female scientists shouldn't, um, you know, mentor their students and that they can't be role models. But that in sort of emphasizing those roles as the most important thing. And framing profiles of women in those roles in sort of a primary way, you're taking away from the fact that at the core, this is a really competent, good, noteworthy scientist. Let's put that front and center.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I agree actually that if really the profile is focusing on childcare arrangements and your husband's job more so than what scientific work you're doing, then I agree that that is not the balance that should take place. I think it's a question of balance. But you know, I do want to hear about childcare. I've interviewed so many parents for my own parenting podcast. So many women CEOs, when I ask them how they operate, they're like, we just do it. We do it all. There's no division. Personal and professional—it's just all part of life.
Okay, so here’s my question: why is the solution to strip all the information out of women’s profiles? Why not just include more of that information in the men's profiles?
KATIE HAFNER: Yeah, Ann and Christie have heard that critique before, and here’s Ann on that very question.
ANN FINKBEINER: One of the questions that people were asking was shouldn't the personal details of a scientist's life be also included in the profiles of male scientists? Shouldn't we try to humanize scientists’ images? And my answer to that is humanizing scientists is one of the things that we want most to do, but, no, not with these details. Because plenty of humans have those problems with childcare and spousal jobs, and you're writing a profile of a scientist. What makes a scientist interesting is the research. If Andrea Ghez showed up on my front porch, I would not care about her husband's job at all. What I would like to know is why she was following that star around that black hole for so long.
KATIE HAFNER: Doesn't context matter? For instance, let's say that Andrea Ghez- that Vanity Fair wanted to profile her, that would be one thing. But Scientific American, that's completely different, a Times profile would be different. What do you think of that?
ANN FINKBEINER: I think Christie answered that in her post, in creating the Finkbeiner Test, she said, if you wouldn't say it about a man, why would you say it about a woman?
KATIE HAFNER: Right…
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Yeah, I stand by that. I mean, really. And I don't- I'm just not moved by this idea that like, no, really we need to talk about men's childcare arrangements too. It's like, no, we don't. Well, this is about their science, and the reason that they are being profiled in this high profile thing is, is because they're good scientists. You know, which is not to say that there aren't instances where other biases and our society drive, you know, who gets attention and who doesn't. Um, but I think part of this is about remedying that.
KATIE HAFNER: Yeah, so Ann and Christie really stood firm, but just when I was thinking we are official Finkbeiner losers, Christie made it clear this test isn't meant to apply to everything ever written about a woman.
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: I think one of the things that has gotten lost here is that what Ann and I are talking about with the Finkbeiner test are run of the mill profiles of scientists. Um, you know, we aren't saying that no one should ever write about discrimination in science or the barriers that exist to women succeeding in science. if you're writing a story that's explicitly about, you know, the barriers that women have overcome, you know, the- the sort of institutionalized sexism and discrimination that women face, that's a different thing. And there it's absolutely acceptable to do that. What we're saying is that every goddamn story about a woman scientist doesn't need to be about how she's a woman and isn't it cute that she's a woman and isn't it hard for her she's a woman, and let's make sure she's also a good wife and a good mother because otherwise, you know, what value does she really have?
KATIE HAFNER: You should have the stroganoff test.
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Yeah, right?
ANN FINKBEINER: That’s what we should call it.
KATIE HAFNER: So Carol, clearly, the Finkbeiner test doesn’t apply to everything. And actually, Ann—even Ann—admitted, she sometimes breaks the rules. And I don’t think it really does apply to the kind of work we do. You know, Christie said this is for run-of-the-mill profiles, but what we're doing is really biographies—the kind of biography you would turn into a book. It's fully formed stories of a person's entire life. So it's the professional and the personal, and it's all mixed together. And it gives listeners a sense of the-the whole person.
CHRISTIE ASCHWANDEN: Well, I think a biography of someone is- is going to have to detail some of the barriers they faced and how they overcame them and all of that. But that's- that's a different beast. And there again, you would hope that it would still emphasize the things that make this person interesting, which is their work.
KATIE HAFNER: Mm-hmm.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The thing that hasn't come up that I'm interested in in terms of the recreation of this test is it seems as if they only want people to be inspired by the actual work that this person who has no gender has done. But I believe there's another level of inspiration when you see that someone has overcome obstacles, has broken through barriers to get there. And- and they suggest that that- only if you're writing about that specifically, like only if you're writing about the story of someone breaking through a barrier. But in- as I see it, when you're writing about the story of someone making a huge discovery, and maybe the story is that she made this discovery to a group of men who ignored her, or she made the discovery to, um, a group of people who took it and claimed it as their own, I mean, the discrimination is part of the story. I mean I think actually it boils down to for a very specific and very limited style of writing about scientific research that a person does, this makes all the sense in the world.
KATIE HAFNER: But I keep coming back to your objection, Carol. If we're looking for equality, why is the answer to strip women's profiles of this kind of information instead of adding it to profiles of men? There’s more than one way to promote gender equality in science—or in science writing, and not everyone agrees about how best to approach it. So Ann actually wrote an article for Scientific American earlier this year about women in astronomy, and she was really struck by how younger scientists wanted to be written about—it wasn’t at all what she expected.
ANN FINKBEINER: I went into that article thinking that what I was gonna hear them saying was that they were sort of living in a post-Finkbeiner test world. That is, they were not women astronomers anymore. They were just astronomers. That's what I thought I was gonna hear. But that's not what I heard. [laughs]
KATIE HAFNER: What did you hear?
ANN FINKBEINER: Instead of making themselves astronomers, they made astronomy female. They- they just said, look it, this is who we are. This is what an astronomer looks like. You know, we wear dresses to give talks. We- we talk about our kids in faculty meetings. We call you out every single time. You know, you harass us sexually or professionally, and it's not over with by any means, but my goodness, those young women were fun to write about.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Okay, I’m not sure I’d call this making astronomy female—astronomy has no gender—but I think these young women have the right idea. This is an age old argument of feminism. I can remember when I was a young law associate and our outfit, I kid you not, was a tailored suit with a paisley bow because we wanted to get as close as we could to the men's suit so that we would be- we would fade into the background of all of the young associates. I cringe when I think about those horrible suits with the paisley bow ties and that was the uniform.
And I think that that way of thinking that the men do it legitimately, and in order for us to be legitimate, we have to do it the way the men do it, and men don't talk about these things, so we shouldn't talk about it either. That is a long held, but often debated perspective on feminism and- and owning your femininity. And- and now back to the law firm for a second, the pendulum has completely swung, and women are wearing whatever they want in law offices, and nobody's suggesting that because they are doing that, it makes them any less effective lawyers at all. And so this concept that treating women just as you treat men, makes it okay for everyone. I mean, I think that the younger generation is thinking, okay, that's not okay for anyone.
KATIE HAFNER: I think we've clearly made our choice here at Lost Women of Science. Because you know, we don’t think we have to take the woman out of astronomy or physics or chemistry or any science. Which means we’re going to talk about it all - the firsts, the sexism, the personal and the professional, the cockatoos and the black holes, and if we break some Finkbeiner rules in the process, so be it.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: This podcast was produced by Elah Feder with help from Hilda Gitchell and Ashraya Gupta. Make sure you don't miss our next season or our upcoming Lost Women of Science shorts by subscribing on your podcast player.
Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, which catalyzes conversations about living purposeful and meaningful lives.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
You can learn more about our initiative at lostwomenofscience.org and you can find us on Twitter and Instagram @lostwomenofsci. That’s lost women of S-C-I.
Thank you so much for listening.
Katie Hafner was a longtime reporter for The New York Times, where she continues to be a frequent contributor. Katie is uniquely positioned to tell the stories of lost women of science. Not only does she bring a skilled hand to complex narratives, but she has been writing about women in STEM for nearly 30 years. She is the author of six books of non-fiction, and her first novel, The Boys, was published in July 2022 by Spiegel & Grau. Katie is also the host and executive producer of Our Mothers Ourselves, an interview podcast that celebrates extraordinary mothers.
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