In 2013, Ann Finkbeiner, a science writer and journalist, wrote about what she would not do when profiling a female astronomer. She was tired of the usual ways in which women in science were being written about and the cliches that accompanied such profiles: They focused too much on the scientist’s gender and less on her science (a point she illustrated by profiling astronomer Andrea Ghez without any such pitfalls). A second journalist, Christie Aschwanden, subsequently created the Finkbeiner test – essentially a check of how many such clichés a profile employed. The test can be applied to profiles of women in other professions as well.
To pass the Finkbeiner test, the profile must not 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…”
Both Aschwanden and Finkbeiner maintain that this test is only applicable to general interest profiles you’d find in mainstream news outlets, like The New York Times and The Guardian, that focus on professional accomplishments. Aschwanden wrote that “treating female scientists as special cases only perpetuates the idea that there’s something extraordinary about a woman doing science.”
Gender disparity persists in science and women are underrepresented in science departments at universities around the world. However, gender-related issues must be written about separately and not while profiling the scientist herself. Aschwanden says that it is important to write about gender-related issues either in an article on sexism in science or the gender gap in leadership roles in science – but that it is not okay to turn a general interest profile about a scientist and her professional accomplishments into a story about her personal life and gender roles.
Chad Orzel has argued that the whole point of writing general profiles is to provide an image of them as people. The problem is not that we ask female scientists about their husbands’ jobs but that we don’t ask male scientists the questions. But according to Finkbeiner, talking about family issues with male or female scientists is not exactly the best way to overcome the problem. She cites several scientists who all have families and children who need to be taken care of. If a writer really wants to humanise the scientist, then they need to talk about their experiences and motivations behind their science.
In a 1997 paper, Jocelyn Steinke at Western Michigan University observed that there are three ways in the US in which media stereotypes of women scientists were being reinforced:
- By downplaying the expertise of women scientists (by emphasising the domestic abilities and feminine qualities of women scientists rather than their scientific expertise,
- By focusing on conflicts faced by women scientists in balancing the demands of their professional and personal lives (by emphasising the hard-work and sacrifices that women scientists had to make in their careers, and
- By presenting women scientists as lacking the masculine traits and skills needed to conduct scientific research (by mentioning that ‘women are distractions’, etc.)
In 2005, Cory L. Armstrong and Michelle R. Nelson, from the Universities of Alabama and Illinois respectively, noted that a common way these stereotypes form is due to the media’s representation of women. For example, if stories about female scientists include information about their childcare arrangements and their husbands’ jobs, and stories about male scientists exclude all this information, then the reader assumes that the burden of looking after children is only for the woman to bear. That prioritising the spouse’s job over their own is something that only women are supposed to do.
India and women in science
There are few mainstream news outlets in the country that have dedicated space to covering science and profile scientists. When they are profiled, it’s usually in the form of an obituary.
So to test how articles on Indian male and female scientists fared, 20 articles profiling two male and two female scientists were selected (listed at the end). The women were Janaki Ammal (1897-1984), a botanist, and Anna Mani (1918-2001), a physicist and meteorologist. The two male scientists selected were Yashpal (1926-2017), a physicist, and Pushpa Mittra Bhargava (1928-2017), a biologist.
The articles were from popular news outlets like The Hindu, Times of India, Indian Express and The Wire. Articles about Ammal and Mani were also sourced from alternative sites like Feminism in India, Vagabomb and The Better Indiabecause most mainstream news outlets did not profile these scientists. All articles were written posthumously.
All the articles chosen were in English because they were accessible to the author and amenable to analysis. It would be interesting to write about the coverage of female scientists in regional language news sources as an extension of this essay.
The articles on Ammal and Mani were read first and statements that succumbed to clichés in the Finkbeiner test were highlighted. They were read a second time after reading the articles about Yashpal and Bhargava. Statements that were mentioned in the profiles of the female scientists but missing from those of the male scientists were selected. These quotes from the articles were then reanalysed.
Since both the women scientists selected were never married or had any children (adopted or biological), test criteria pertaining to husbands’ jobs and their child-care arrangements were not applicable. Two alternate criteria were adopted instead:
- How she deviated/departed from stereotypical gender norms/roles to pursue her science
- Any discussion or enquiry into her family background and social standing that enabled her to pursue her science – Such statements take away from the agency and individual abilities of the female scientist. In contrast, the articles on the male scientists barely bother with inquiries into their family background (as noted below). It’s almost as if the female scientists owe all of their professional accomplishments only to their family background and caste/class advantages. Clearly, class/caste privilege presents advantages to Indian scientists both male and female. But the gender-bias becomes evident when it is written only in the context of female scientists.
Articles on Ammal covered her professional life but also included an entire discussion on how she departed from stereotypical gender norms and went ahead to pursue an illustrious career in science. There were also questions on her caste and whether her family was ‘liberal’ enough to send her abroad to study.
From the Hindustan Times, 2014:
Were her parents broad-minded enough to send their daughter thousands of kilometres away in pursuit of education? Or did she struggle to get their approval? How did she escape the societal compulsions to get married?’ and ‘…in Kerala’s matrilineal families women normally had much more freedom and privilege than their counterparts in many other parts of India. They were encouraged to engage in intellectual pursuits. Thus giving us a hint as to how Ammal’s family may have supported her throughout her education and career.
Such statements take away from the individual characteristics and abilities of the female scientist and attribute it to societal structures. They also take attention away from the science that should have been the main focus.
Articles on Mani quote her saying it was not difficult as a woman to do science insisting that it was the same for a woman working in India or in the UK.
Why do you want to interview me? My being a woman had absolutely no bearing on what I chose to do with my life. What is this hoopla about women and science? It must be getting difficult for women to do science these days. We had no such problems in our time.
Statements such as“[She] could have been a conscious role model for younger women, she had been unaware of the need to do so” also distract from the scientist and her accomplishments, trying instead to create an image of her as ‘nurturing’ and ‘motherly’. Such characterisation remains squarely outside a scientist’s professional accomplishments.
Articles on Yashpal covered his professional achievements and his influence outside science (since he was a well-connected science communicator). There is no mention of his personal life whatsoever.
Many people are intrigued about his name. Yashpal had no surname. Rather, he had dropped his surname. He had revealed the full story to his biographer, Biman Basu, a few years ago. As non-believers in the caste system Yash Pal’s family had already given up using their surname (Bhutani). But when he was 13 and had to change his school, he took on the surname of Arya and he passed his matriculation examination under this name. In 1942, at the age of 15, when he joined college, he took on the surname of Bharati—influenced by the students movement and the freedom struggle. A couple of years later, he dropped Bharati too. “But interestingly, he could not escape having a surname. He acquired one after he started publishing scientific papers because people started calling him ‘Pal’”, says Basu.
This is the only personal, non-professional detail of his life that tells us about how he opposed caste hierarchies by dropping his last name.
The articles on Bhargava and Yashpal did not mention their family/social standing that enabled them to pursue their science. All of their professional accomplishments were attributed to individual characteristics, evident from lines like “Given his deep interest in making science education meaningful, the government made him the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC). His work at the UGC and in the education sector was legendary.” Also: “He wanted universities where humanities and sciences meet and coexist, and not live in isolation.”
The aim of this exercise is to start a conversation on how we need to become alert to potentially implicit biases while writing and reading about women in science, or any other field for that matter. We need to normalise the fact that people can and have been doing science not because of their gender.
Twenty articles analysed:
Pushpa Mittra Bhargava
This article first appeared in The Wire on Saturday on 23rd December, 2017, (http://bit.ly/2D5646N)