How to write about lady-scientists (e.g., stuff they cook that ISN’T dinner)

Yvonne Brill was a genius of rocket propulsion, a “pioneering spirit,” and — above all — a monster with some beef and noodles.

Yvonne Brill, a Canadian rocket scientist who developed jet propulsion technologies, died recently at 88, after a long career propelling human beings toward the stars. The New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin began with a quote about her cooking and mothering skills:

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”

Brill developed the concept for a new rocket engine, the hydrazine resistojet, but the paper of record starts off with her beef noodle skills.

Not a month earlier, writer Ann Finkbeiner had promised that the next time she profiles a female astronomer, she’s “not going to mention her husband’s job or her child care arrangements or how she nurtures her students or how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field.” In other words, “I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.”

Colleague Christie Anderson namechecks other egregious ladyprofiles — biologist Jill Bargonetti, who “is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research”; neuropsychologist Brenda Milner, who “was determined to compete with the best scientists, male or female”; physicist Lisa Randall, who can’t escape “the fact that she’s just turned 43 and that if she wants to have kids she’s going to have to get on with it soon” — and further refines this into what will be called The Finkbeiner Test.

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…”

Here’s another trick: Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.

Tech blog LadyCoders has a monthly Men in Tech profile that asks all the burning questions: What is it like being a man in tech? How does your wife support you in your career? How do you balance work and family? Have you had to make sacrifices in your career to accommodate your relationship? What are some of the struggles you’ve overcome to reach where you are in your career? Have you had problems with other men trying to hold you back from success? What advice do you have for other men in tech?

And, one assumes, What is your secret to a really rich stroganoff sauce?

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25 comments for “How to write about lady-scientists (e.g., stuff they cook that ISN’T dinner)

  1. Anon21
    April 2, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    I agree with most but not all of this. Most of these quotes are just stupid, and betray the chauvinistic assumption that women’s most important contributions must come in the home, regardless of her attainments in her working life.

    The quote about Brenda Milner is not necessarily like that at all; and the recommendation not to mention that the subject of the profile is a woman isn’t a good idea in every case. Like it or not, science and technology are probably more misogynistic than other fields. Thus, many women who are preeminent in these fields will have experienced gender oppression as an important part of their journey to where they are, and that will often be something that should be highlighted in a profile.

    It would be silly to say that no profile of Stephen Hawking should ever mention his ALS or how it’s affected his life and work. The key point is that that shouldn’t become the focus of a piece ostensibly about his work on black holes; moreover, it probably doesn’t need to be mentioned in literally every piece written about him. To me, it’s a similar situation with women in STEM and other misogynistic fields; sometimes it will be important to discuss the obstacles that men placed in their paths because of their gender, and sometimes it will not be.

    • aveskde
      April 3, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      I agree with most but not all of this. Most of these quotes are just stupid, and betray the chauvinistic assumption that women’s most important contributions must come in the home, regardless of her attainments in her working life.

      I strongly disagree with this assessment, I see no chauvinism or mal-intent. When I read the story’s first publishing, the impression I had was that the writer was trying to make her more relateable by writing about how her own family saw her. When a person dies, how those closest to the person viewed the person is important. It also is important to remember that no one feels sadness or emotion when hearing that a rocket scientist died of cancer complications. We might, however, feel some sadness upon hearing about the person’s human qualities, like how he or she took care of or contributed to those around them.

      • matlun
        April 3, 2013 at 12:56 pm

        When I read the story’s first publishing, the impression I had was that the writer was trying to make her more relateable by writing about how her own family saw her

        Yes, that was obviously the intent. The question is: Would the same type of text have been written about a man?

        It is seen as much more important for women to be “relateable”. They are judged more on their softer qualities and it is more important for a woman that she takes care of her family, since this is what a proper woman should do.

        With this attitude, if it had just focused on her accomplishment as a scientist it would give a less positive picture. In a way that would not happen for a man.

        This implicit judgment is the problem.

      • Miriam
        April 3, 2013 at 5:12 pm

        That you see it just means you don’t know how to see it when it’s right in front of you. Newspaper articles are structured so that the first paragraph contains the most important information first. In the case of Yvonne Brill, the most important information about her is her accomplishments. That’s why the NY Times is writing a special, long obit for her in the first place… her rocket propulsion accomplishment is literally what makes her newsworthy.

        The original obit didn’t mention Brill’s profession or her accomplishment in the first paragraph at all. That’s a huge problem. There’s an actual term for this–it’s called burying the lead (or lede). Burying the lead does not make Brill more relateable–it presents her as an appendix to her husband and her children and as though the complete whole of her life was that she’s a wife and mother.

        IMHO, it’s also problematic to say that we should need to find a brilliant rocket scientist relateable. Quite frankly, Brill ISN’T relateable just as Stephen Hawkins isn’t relateable or Marie Curie isn’t relateable or Einstein isn’t relateable. These are aspirational figures, and we should feel sad when a great scientist dies because a great scientist has died. We shouldn’t need to know that his/her children loved him/her or s/he was a great cook in order to care.

  2. Donna L
    April 2, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    many women who are preeminent in these fields will have experienced gender oppression as an important part of their journey to where they are, and that will often be something that should be highlighted in a profile.

    I agree. But only if the particular woman has herself written or spoken about that issue as being important to her. Otherwise, I don’t think so. Of course, unless one starts using gender-neutral pronouns, the fact that someone is a woman is generally going to be apparent whether a piece specifically mentions that fact or not, but I think the point is that in many cases there’s no real reason to specifically mention that fact, any more than a piece about Joe Schmo would be likely to specifically say, “Joe Schomo, who is a male scientist,” etc.

  3. FashionablyEvil
    April 2, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    I’m okay with the “first woman to…” formulation. For example, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the first law school class to include women, the dean called all the women into his office and demanded to know what they were doing, taking slots away from men. Often the challenges associated with being first are pretty brutal.

    • robotile
      April 3, 2013 at 2:37 am

      RBG = da bomb. Seriously, so amazing!

      • BBBShrewHarpy
        April 3, 2013 at 11:01 pm

        Totally. And RBG’s obit would never mention her Beef Stroganoff because she doesn’t cook, and in fact deferred all the domestic stuff to her husband, who was very accomplished in culinary matters.

        He was also very successful as a lawyer, and it would have been quite reasonable for his obit to mention both his professional success and his culinary talent. Which, in fact, it did. Only the culinary bit came at the end, after his professional accomplishments and his relationship with his more famous spouse.

        Mr. Ginsburg’s obit

  4. dhasenan
    April 2, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    If the article had an appropriately short blurb about Brill’s home life, concentrating instead on her major contributions to the world, and the split between home life and scientific contributions were standardized across genders, I think there wouldn’t be much complaint here, would there?

    If not, the Finkbeiner Test is a reasonable approximation, but not the actual optimization target.

    • Meera
      April 3, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      “and the split between home life and scientific contributions were standardized across genders”

      This is the key contextual factor. I’d love to live in a world where both men and women of prominence were discussed with reference to their personal qualities as well as their professional achievements, in a completely gender-equitable, non-value-linked way. But because we live in a world which doesn’t work that way, this obit is problematic.

  5. April 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    She didn’t take 8 years off, though, she continued to work albeit part time & had security clearances and did major stuff. Also, her husband followed HER for a job at least once, out of country. So even if you take away the home maker stuff, the bio is still WRONG & discounts much of her life & accomplishments.

  6. April 2, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Here is a portrait of a (to quote the OP,) ‘lady-scientist,’ that I read some time ago which may pass the test.

    • PrettyAmiable
      April 3, 2013 at 8:35 pm

      I think it’s very well written, especially given that the media is unbearably awful in terms of treating trans folks with respect. There’s a tiny, ridiculously cynical part of me that is concerned that it’s secret transphobia (i.e. her wife was the real mother, or something), but I have decided it’s unnecessarily paranoid, given how respectful the article is. I agree with you – this should be the standard for all women.

      • Donna L
        April 4, 2013 at 12:00 am

        It actually never refers to Ms. Rothblatt as her daughter’s mother, so it isn’t clear whether she identifies as such, or still considers herself her daughter’s father. Which some trans women continue to do, often in the interest of reassuring their child that there’s continuity, that they’re the same person, that the child’s father didn’t “die,” etc.

        I thought the article was extremely respectful, and handled her history very well, with one exception, although I don’t know if she cared: I see no reason whatsoever why it was necessary to mention her prior first name, even if she gave her consent to use it. It serves no purpose other than reinforcing in readers’ minds the standard ciscentric concept that that was her “real” name, and undermining (even if not deliberately) the authenticity of her present name. I would be absolutely devastated if my prior first name were ever published. I try never to mention it to people who didn’t know me “before,” even if they’re close friends and even if they know about my history. It isn’t that I believe that anyone who’s my friend would ever use my old name against me (like my former spouse still sometimes does when she’s annoyed with me about something, which rarely happens anymore because I try to limit our interactions as much as possible). It’s simply that I don’t want people to associate me with my old name in any way. I want to be only Donna in their minds.

        Which is why the one time there was a newspaper article published about me, back around the time I transitioned, I made it very clear that I wouldn’t cooperate at all if they used either my former name or my last name, no matter how much the journalist who wrote the article tried to persuade me that being completely “out” would show how brave I was, blah blah blah. Fortunately, I’m not that naive! Instead, I made up a fictitious male name for myself, and she used that instead for the “before” part of the article. And I still wish I hadn’t agreed to the article, although fortunately the newspaper in which it was published has not, as of the last time I checked, put its archive on the Internet.

  7. April 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    What are the chances that the guy that writes obits for the NYT understands jet propulsion? “Uh, scary science words….oh wait, noodles! I understand noodles.”


    Side note, the wikipedia entry on ‘shit’ is awesome.

    • Willard
      April 3, 2013 at 12:55 am

      I have a feeling that’s not too far off the mark.

      He should have covered this engineer a few years ago, where food references would have actually been appropriate.

    • Willard
      April 3, 2013 at 12:57 am

      Derp…her wikipedia entry doesn’t include the clever bit. The Hydyne page is where the food reference is.

  8. DouglasG
    April 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

    The Men in Tech series seems to improve as it goes along. At least in the most recent interview the subject mentioned his wife before the interviewer asked, “How does your wife support you in your career?” (The month before, the question was asked before any mention or establishment of any partner, let alone an opposite-sex marriage – major head-bang moment.)

    From the most recent post I like I would advise listening to feminist women and presuming that they are right as an intellectual starting place, even if you don’t believe they are, and see where the thread of thought and conversation can go from there before zooming out and drawing your own conclusions. But nobody catching the “complimentary skill set” has given me my (with any luck, only, rather than first) Groan of the Day.

  9. April 3, 2013 at 9:07 am

    We need more of these tests like The Finkbeiner and The Bechdel, when portraying women in media whether it be articles or movies. The test should be pre-programmed into every computer, making anything sexist trigger the alarm. Like an alcohol lock on a car.

  10. aveskde
    April 3, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    I think the intent behind the “Finkbeiner test” misses the cultural context behind these stories. We write about women with mention to family because in our culture, it is typically women who take care of families. We write about the unique accomplishments because of womens’ social expectations and unique hardships.

    To ignore it, in my mind, is comparable to ignoring (for example) the unique history of Barack Obama’s role as the first Black president of the United States. Sure, you could pretend that his race is unimportant, but you would be missing the context in history – the last decades of civil rights, which lead up to this point.

    Until women become socially identical to men in our culture, it would be lacking in context I think to pretend that there are no differences in experiences or expectations.

    • karak
      April 3, 2013 at 7:20 pm

      Are you new? Because it honestly seems you’re missing your 101 info.

      If we keep acting like women’s main role in life is to be a mother, then that’s what gets repeated. On a piece about the death of a famous scientist, the focus needs to be on her achievements in science, not in the kitchen. Not her kids or her husband or her sense of fashion.

      When Barack Obama gets interviewed, they don’t need to ask him a million questions about being black unless they’re talking about being black. Ask him like he’s any other President. If he wants to talk about being black, trust me, he’s capable of handling it.

  11. MaryT
    April 8, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    LadyCoders is a dubious organization at best. It tries to make money telling newbie young women to be less offensive and more passing to men in order to get a tech job. Seriously. And watch what you wear to interviews. You can pay to get this kind of advice from them.

    This advice and the whole scheme is kind of a scam to get money from people on the fact that they use the word “lady” and “tech” together, but the people running the organization aren’t exactly on the front lines and are neither highly qualified or experienced in tech jobs themselves, so therefore, if you can’t do: sell an 80 dollar DVD on advice to young women who don’t question who made it. As Caitlin would say, save your money for cheese. There are several great organizations for women in tech that are about transparency about what they do with funds and are by highly experienced women.

    • April 8, 2013 at 6:56 pm

      I did not know that. Thanks for letting us know.

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