Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Scientist Who Happens To Be a Woman

This month is Women's History Month, and last Friday was International Women's Day. Such celebrations are set to recognize and pay tribute to the contributions made by women throughout history. Many of those contributions were by women in science.

A growing number of women, however, are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with efforts to highlight women in science because such emphasis may lead to the conclusion that there is something unusual about female scientists or that we need "special help" to succeed (special awards, fellowships, grants).

The problem seems to be exacerbated by news stories in which the female gender of the story subject is emphasized over whatever it is she has accomplished. Articles about women scientists invariably talk about the fact that they are women (".....she's one of a handful of women to work on this topic.") and about family matters ("....she had to leave her three-year-old for a month to do field research in the Antarctic"). Some focus on special challenges they face as women in a male-dominated field ("....she had to accomplish twice that of her male colleagues to be acknowledged as competent").

I came across this post by Christie Aschwandenwho suggests the Finkbeiner Test for articles profiling women in science. It's similar to the Bechdel Test, which assesses gender bias in film, which I've described here previously. To pass the Finkbeiner Test, the article cannot mention any of the following:
  • 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…”
I agree that over emphasis on gender can backfire and send the wrong message. But I also understand the journalists' viewpoint in trying to make a technical topic more attractive to readers (especially female readers) by emphasizing gender and/or the unusual. To get people interested in reading about a topic, the journalist has to find a "hook", and anything unusual works well to attract readers. Look at the recent media buzz about Danica Patrick, the first female NASCAR driver to win the pole position in the Daytona 500 competition. Even though media attention is focused mostly on her gender, she's edged out male competitors to become the most popular NASCAR driver, especially among female fans of the sport. Her crew chief said that he's given out "more lugnuts to young girls this week than he's given to anyone in his career". 

I do wish that we could just write and read about the accomplishments of a scientist or race car driver who just happens to be a woman. But that's not going to happen as long as the subject's gender is seen as something unusual. Journalists can help things along by de-emphasizing gender in articles about female scientists (as Aschwanden and Finkbeiner suggest). As scientists, we can decline to provide answers to gender-based questions in interviews and refocus attention on the science.