Asking Questions and the "Finkbeiner Test"

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.


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I do agree that those questions, if asked, should be asked of men scientists too. As I said in a Facebook comment, I've even done these interviews only I didn't realize it at the time. I'd be interviewing some guy, he'd get a phone call, talk for a while, then say he had to leave early because the kid was sick or the kid needed to be picked up early or the wife had to get to a meeting. One couple at the same university kept the kid in a stroller and just rolled it from one office to the other, depending on the parents' schedule. I just never put this stuff in the profile.

By Ann Finkbeiner (not verified) on 06 Mar 2013 #permalink

I completely agree that men should be asked these questions too. However, even if men were asked these questions, I suspect that articles about women would still put more focus on these questions, while they'd be briefer asides in articles about men.

And, to be honest, on some level I have a tiny bit of sympathy for the journalists here. I am told by many female scientists, at all career stages, that at career-oriented discussions for junior female scientists, the women in the audience, of their own volition, inundate senior female scientists with questions about children, dual-career couples, and other work/family issues. If women in science are demonstrating a strong interest in these questions, I have a tiny bit of sympathy for the journalist who says "I'm profiling a scientist as an example of a career path, what are questions that female readers will want me to ask?"

In the end, it's still unfair to put all of that burden on women, to write the profiles of women one way and write the profiles of men another way. Still, I have a tiny bit of sympathy for the journalists, because there is a demonstrated interest, and they are getting signals that would make it very easy for a well-intentioned journalist to go there.

I agree completely, Alex. I just wouldn't put that information in profiles of scientists for popular audiences, I'd put it in journal articles or talks or newsletters for scientist audiences.

By Ann Finkbeiner (not verified) on 06 Mar 2013 #permalink

See, I disagree slightly about the idea that this shouldn't be in a profile article. If you read a profile article about people in other fields, it's not at all unusual to hear about their family life. Any story about a rock star, male or female, will include information about their family life-- I read a half-dozen Bruce Springsteen articles last year, every one of which talked about his marriage and his kids. Politicians and athletes, ditto-- you won't find a Joe Biden article outside of the Onion that doesn't mention Jill Biden. It's not necessarily all that relevant to what they do professionally, but it tells you something about them as people, and is something that people legitimately find interesting. Some pieces will dance around the topic of a failed marriage, or have somebody declare that stuff off-limits, but it's common practice to report on the family lives of public figures. (I'm not talking tabloid trash, here, but reputable publications doing respectful profiles of notable people.)

So I don't really see why you would leave it out of a profile of a scientist. Scientists are as human as rock stars, and I don't see why that information would be intrinsically less interesting than for a politician or an actor. Insisting that it not be included for either gender, in fact, strikes me as playing into the myth of the inhuman scientist, which isn't a particularly positive stereotype, either.

I think it's valuable to have that stuff in a profile article, not as the focus of the piece, but as another bit of information. If a scientist-- male or female-- has a spouse who stays home with the kids, that tells you something useful about how they managed their career, and can shed some light on what sort of person they are. And I think it would be even more valuable to have a male scientist say "Yes, I have kids, and these are the compromises I've had to make to balance my career and family, to make clear that that, too, is a legitimate choice.

If I ever get notable enough for someone to write a magazine profile about me (the closest I've gotten is this Physics Central profile from a few years ago), I hope they do ask about and write about SteelyKid and The Pip, and I'll be happy to answer as frankly as I can about what I do to manage both work and family. (Actually, they probably won't even need to ask about the kids-- I drop plenty of unprompted references to them as it is...) I think that's important information to share with students, both male and female, who are thinking about careers in science. As I said last week, I think work-life issues are human issues, not just women's issues, and need to be discussed as such.

We're not disagreeing here. I'm sure we both agree that personal life info has been a stock part of profiles of women's profiles and much less so of men's, and that imbalance ought to stop. A couple of profiles of men scientists I've done, I haven't' mentioned wife or kids. But possibly the one I'm working on now, I will, but because like you, the profilee talks about them proudly and because if you know him at all, you're bound to know his wife. So ok

By Ann Finkbeiner (not verified) on 06 Mar 2013 #permalink


It seems like there is an idea that only women care about issues with having children or maintaining a family or the two-body problem. The only places I regularly hear of people talking about it are events aimed at women, which I can't really go to.

Perhaps I am just a girly man who isn't dedicated enough to science and I should let my wife worry about these problems.

I agree with you, I had the same thought when I read this list. I think it's interesting how people balance their work life and their private life, what challenges they face, how they address them, and what bothers them - irrespective of their gender. The solution can't be to entirely scrape this information - it's not going to work anyway: as long as there are readers interested in it, somebody will deliver. Instead I'd like to encourage the writers to include this information for male scientists too. How do they combine work and family. Does it work well? What are the difficulties.

I know from talking to my male colleagues that many of the difficulties we face are the same, that being primarily childcare arrangements and fighting with national institutions after numerous international moves, n-body problems in searching for new jobs, commuting troubles and so on. Their stories should be given a place too.