The Finkbeiner test, named for the science journalist Ann Finkbeiner, is a checklist to help science journalists avoid gender bias in articles about women in science. It asks writers to avoid describing women scientists in terms of stereotypically feminine traits, such as their family arrangements.
It resembles but was not inspired by the Bechdel test, a measure of women's representation in fiction. The Finkbeiner test has been linked to affirmative action, because writing can cause readers to view women in science as different from men in negative or unfair ways. The test helps avoid gender bias in science reporting similar to various Bechdel tests that focus on under-representation of marginalized groups in different career fields.
The Finkbeiner test is a checklist proposed by freelance journalist Christie Aschwanden to help journalists avoid gender bias in media articles about women in science. To pass the test, an article about a female scientist must not mention:
- That she is a woman
- Her husband's job
- Her childcare arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she is a role model for other women
- How she's the "first woman to..."
Aschwanden formulated the test in an article in Double X Science, an online magazine for women published on 5 March 2013. She created the test in the spirit of the Bechdel test – used to highlight gender bias in film – in response to the sexist media coverage of women scientists she noticed. She recalled:
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.
Aschwanden named the test after journalist Ann Finkbeiner, winner of the 2008 Science Communication Award, who had earlier written a post for the science blog The Last Word on Nothing about her decision not to write about the subject of her latest article, an astronomer, "as a woman".
Both journalists agree that the test "should apply mainly to the sort of general-interest scientist profiles that one might find in The New York Times or the front section of Nature, which are supposed to focus on professional accomplishments". The point of the test is to not overemphasize or privilege the gender of a female scientist. Even Finkbeiner, who vowed to "ignore gender" in her writing, actually tripped up on the tendency to focus on sex; in an astronomer's profile she mentioned that the scientist was the "first" to win a certain award. "After a reader urged Finkbeiner to stick to her pledge, she removed it." The tactic of singling out women as "role models" can also distort gender equality in the reception of news reporting. Students indiscriminately cite scholars and mentors of any sex or gender as "great role models"; being a role model is not unique to a person's sex or gender identity expression. Thus, emphasizing sex in profiles about members of marginalized groups reinforces their supposed difference, perpetuating gender bias in science.
The test was mentioned in the media criticism of the New York Times's obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill. That obituary, published on 30 March 2013, by Douglas Martin, began with the words: "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children". A few hours after publication the New York Times revised the obituary to address some of the criticisms; the revised version begins "She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job..."
Another New York Times article, on Jennifer Doudna, published on 11 May 2015, drew similar criticism with reference to the Finkbeiner test. An article in The Globe and Mail on astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi, published on 16 February 2016, drew the same criticism, as did David Quammen's book A Tangled Tree, for giving women scientists, especially Lynn Margulis, short shrift.
Susan Gelman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, applauded the move to report on female scientists without emphasising their gender, but questions whether the Finkbeiner test should seek to eliminate all references to personal life, suggesting that the move should be towards asking male scientists about personal issues too. This view is shared by other writers. In addition, Vasudevan Mukunth points out in The Wire that countries in which women are drastically under-represented in science might want to bend the test's rules in hopes of highlighting any systemic barriers: "The test's usefulness rests on the myth of a level playing field—there is none in India."
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