Great cook and mother dies

after also doing some kick-ass rocket science. For a related spoof obit of Einstein see here.

I’m totally down with criticising the obit, obvs. However, one of the critics argues that writing about women scientists should pass 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…”

And I’m not sure I like this test. It is in fact important to know that X was the first woman to do something. And women trying to imagine themselves into her role may well benefit from learning about her childcare arrangements and her husband’s job. And showing that a rocket scientist can also be woman who cooks stroganoff can really help to break down stereotypical associations. So I feel a little torn.

(Thanks, J-Bro and Mr Jender!)

6 thoughts on “Great cook and mother dies

  1. The Finkbeiner test is a set of guidelines. There is room for exceptions. For example, if you are specifically writing about how women are kept back, as a friend of mine is, then you have to weigh that. In the Times piece, Martin could easily have kept the material about Brill’s challenges in a “man’s world” to 4 paragraphs near the middle or last third of the story, Instead, he larded it into almost every paragraph so that the “problem” of Brill being a woman was always front and center and her scientific accomplishments faded to the back. His wording constantly belittled her accomplishments. E.g., she “managed” to find jobs wherever she went? Um, no. She was snapped up because she was a genius. It’s not the stroganoff.

  2. I think I might insert a “gratuitously” before the “cannot”.

    So, for example, if you are reporting on someone’s work, most of that stuff is completely and utterly gratuitous. In an obit, undue emphasis on most of that stuff is clearly gratuitous, but it’s standard to mention e.g., of men, that they were some sort of “first”.

    I’m not sure this would resist the problem Jennie identified (i.e., the diminishment of Brill).

    You could try the sex change trick, i.e., take the writing and pretend it was about a man (e.g., switch all the pronouns) and see if it would pass muster. (You can go back and add stuff that jennysaul suggests would be helpful, but *prima facie* if you wouldn’t write that article if they were a man, then perhaps it’s a really good idea to make sure your departure is constructive).

  3. My reaction is pretty similar to what Bijan said at comment 2. It’s really about the main focus of the obit, keeping in mind that this obit appears in a national newspaper that is supposed to be introducing the public to someone whose work is of national importance. I don’t mind that it mentions the cooking, so long as it’s clear that her main contribution to national issues is her work as a scientist. Along those lines, I’d also agree with Jenny Saul that it’s appropriate to mention her gender. It seems appropriate insofar as her gender is of national importance (and it is, as a breaker of stereotypes).

    What rankled me about the obit is that it presented her as primarily a woman who cooks. When you put it that way, the natural reaction is “wow, big deal, why should that appear in the Times?” And obviously that’s not the way one should naturally react to a well-written Times obit.

  4. I think the Finkbeiner test is bad, and not to be used until it is no longer the case that a woman is the first woman to do something or a role model to other oppressed women. The fact that most of the very privileged men who get high-profile obits wouldn’t be written about in a similar way is only a problem in some theory of acontextual equality where we must all be treated the same in some sort of perfect space.

    By the way, the NYT has changed the lead of the obit.

  5. For some context on when the creators thought the test should be used:

    “Finkbeiner stressed in her post that she was describing a personal decision, but expressed wholehearted support for Aschwanden’s test in a recent interview.

    However, both she and Aschwanden, whom I also interviewed, emphasized that the test should apply mainly to the sort of general-interest scientist profiles that one might find in The New York Times or the front section of Nature, which are supposed to focus on professional accomplishments.

    There is plenty of need to write about gender issues, the two agreed, but the point is to do it right. ”

  6. I tend to agree with Finkbeiner’s test and, for instance, I announce a lecture or a conference without mentioning the lecturer’s/the participants’ gender (not to speak about their attractiveness!). Nonetheless, I wonder why one could not go the other way round and discuss the life-work balance of men, too. Perhaps because in most cases this would lead to tragically banal results? I am, in fact, interested in reading about how bright people dealt with such issues, but don’t think that women should be the only authorities in the field.

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