It can be a balancing act to find female role models for girls in science without focusing too much on traditional female roles. If a teen girl wants to have both a family and a science career, do you talk about women who have done it? What bothers me about this ‘struggle’ is that we don’t ask the question when it is a young boy who wants a family and science career. My default position is to talk about the science in one arena and talk about personal lives in another. If I’m talking about a male scientist, I try to find out the personal details that are often included for women.
Once glaring example of talking too much about the personal lives of women scientists was done at the end of March 2013. The New York Times wrote an obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill and led with her ‘mean beef stroganoff’. Her 2011 National Medal of Technology and Innovation wasn’t mentioned until the third paragraph! There was all kinds of outrage and examples are seen in this great Storify. The New York Times then changed their obituary and you can see the before and after. What added insult to injury was that earlier that month, I had read about the Finkbeiner test to measure gender bias in science and it has some great suggestions for writing about women. I then created an assignment for students to write about women in science and pass the Finkbeiner test.
The students were asked to write about a scientist whose work they admire and who happened to be a woman. However, they had to pass the Finkbeiner test so the story could not mention:
- she’s a woman
- her husband’s job
- her child care situation
- her nurturing nature
- how she was surprised by competitiveness
- how she’s a role model for other women
- how she’s “the first woman to…”
The students wrote about:
Please check them out and let them know if they slipped anywhere!
I decided to write about Mary Lyon, the person who discovered X inactivation, the area I studied for my PhD. I realized that I had always thought of her as a woman who did science – not as a scientist who happened to be female. However, I don’t know details of her personal life. I was pleasantly surprised that her Wikipedia page wasn’t that different than those for men. Unfortunately, that may be because she didn’t marry and have children. Her interview in PLOS Genetics does spend some time on what is what like to be a woman but it is a historical perspective and I can see the questions being asked of men. Most of the interview focuses on her work.
I will definitely continue this assignment in future years. I may even add the assignment to write a reverse-Finkbeiner on male scientists. What do you think?