There was a lot of re-sharing yesterday of an article about the “Finkbeiner Test” to be applied to profiles of women scientists. This is analogous to the “Bechdel Test” in pop culture, which asks “Do two women talk to each other about something other than a man?”, only because we’re scientists, it’s more complicated, hitting seven points:
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…”
These are all good points in general, but I’d like to dissent very slightly from the consensus on the two I’ve bolded above. That is, I think that in some respects the solution here is not to start excluding those points from profiles of women, but to start including them in profiles of men.
Please note that in what follows I’m talking about articles about scientists not about science— that is, articles where the focus is on the person and the things they’ve done, not a news story about some particular discovery. If the story is about some new scientific fact, then absolutely none of those points belong in a story about it, save the unavoidable and harmless version of the first that comes with gendered pronouns.
But if the story is a profile piece about the scientist then the whole point of the thing is to present a picture of them as a person, and family and children are absolutely a part of that. Having children is an essential human trait, and it’s natural for people reading profile pieces of some significant person to want to know if that person has kids.
So I would say that the problem isn’t that we do ask women about their spouses and child-care arrangements, but that we don’t ask men those same questions. I absolutely agree that having these questions asked only of women reinforces the notion that caring for kids and family is women’s work, not men’s. But taking those questions out of profile pieces doesn’t fix the underlying problem, it just amounts to agreeing not to talk about the underlying problem.
As long as scientists are going to have children– and I hope we all agree that just not having kids is not an acceptable solution– somebody is going to have to take care of those children. And short of a complete overhaul of our entire society, that means one or both of that child’s parents. If that burden isn’t going to fall disproportionately on women, that means it has to be acceptable and even expected that men are an active part of this process.
It’s not enough just to provide flexible family-friendly policies for women who want to stop the tenure clock to have children, or whatever, it also needs to be possible for men to do the same things. And more than that, it needs to be socially acceptable for men to do those things. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet– a woman asking for time off or schedule flexibility to care for a new child will get cut some (arguably not enough slack), but a man asking for the same consideration will get looked at askance. He may be legally entitled to the same deal, but socially, it’s a whole different matter. And that’s the sticky bit of the this problem– if we go out of our way to make family life easier for only one gender, then the default assumption will continue to be that only people of that gender need to be concerned about child care.
So, rather than moving to a world where we just don’t ask “Who takes care of your kids?” of women, I’d prefer to see a world where we do ask “Who takes care of your kids?” of men. And where we care about the answers– there should be a similar negative perception of uninvolved parents of either gender.
It’s not the content of the questions that’s a problem– these are absolutely legitimate questions if the goal is to know something about the profile subject as a person. Whether you have a family and children, and how you interact with them is an incredibly important part of who you are, and those items are fair game for a profile. The problem is that they’re asked unequally, and even more importantly the underlying assumptions explaining why they’re asked unequally. Refraining from asking those questions of women without changing the underlying attitudes doesn’t make anything better for anyone. Starting to ask those questions of men, to the extent that it shines a light on the underlying attitudes, might be more helpful in the end.