Debate: Why a Test Used to Spot Gender Bias in Science Reports Can Be Myopic

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it is possible to expect some meaningful insights will arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to profiles of women in science.

The Finkbeiner test, named for science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was created to check whether a profile of a female scientist published by a mainstream news outlet was produced in the first place because its subject was a woman. It is a good check to make when writing about a professional scientist’s work; if you are going to write the piece because the subject is a woman and not because you think her work is awesome, then you run the risk of presenting the woman as extraordinary for having chosen to be a scientist. However, more than being a good check, it could also be too subtle an issue to expect everyone to be conscious about – or to abide by.

As The Life of Science initiative has repeatedly discussed, there are many systemic barriers for India’s women in science, all the way from each scientist having had few role models to admire growing up to not being able to stay in academia because institutional policies as well as facilities fall short in being able to retain them. And apart from working towards making these deficiencies known to more people, women have also been leading the fight to patch them once and for all. Thus, talking about successful women scientists without also discussing what is needed to fall into place for them could ring hollow – whereas the Finkbeiner test seeks to eliminate just such supposedly miscellaneous information. As Aashima Dogra, one of the two founders of The Life of Science, put it, “The test’s usefulness rests on the myth of a level playing field – there is none in India.”

For example, a 2015 report by Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole and a 2016 article by Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj (the other founder) both stressed the need for affirmative action on part of the government so more women are retained in scientific pursuits at higher levels. This means science journalism that focuses on a working woman scientist because she belongs to a particular gender and not on her scientific research at the outset becomes useful in the eyes of young scientists but also quickly fails the Finkbeiner test. Does this mean the piece becomes detrimental? Surely not, especially because it would certainly serve the function of holding the people charged with instituting policy and infrastructural corrections accountable.

For another example, several profiles published by The Life of Science suggest that one reason many of the women who have become successful scientists (with faculty-level positions, etc.) were backed up by supportive families and partners. One profile in particular – of Mayurika Lahiri – stood out because it discussed her research as a cancer biologist as well as her achievement in setting up a full-fledged daycare centre at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. However, the Finkbeiner test penalises an article on a woman scientist if it discusses her spouse’s occupation, her childcare arrangements or the fact that she could be a role model.

Some women might not like to be characterised in a way that the Finkbeiner test says they should not be. In such cases, the journalist should respect their choice. Additionally, to be fair to The Life of Science, the Finkbeiner test is intended only for mainstream publications and not specialist projects. But at the same time, this caveat could come off as shortsighted because it aspires to make a stronger distinction between changes that remain to be effected for (India’s) women in science to have it as good as its men already do and the outcomes of those changes that have been implemented well. Persistence with the former results in the latter; the latter encourages the former to continue.

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it is possible to expect more meaningful insights to arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to all mainstream profiles of women in science. In other places, the test could be altered such that a discussion of women’s needs is treated on an equal footing with their science instead of having to ignore one or the other. This way, writers will have an opportunity to make sure their readers do not take the pervasiveness of the conditions that helped women succeed for granted while also highlighting that their work in and of itself is good. To go with this: profiles of male scientists could include questions about what they are doing to make science a non-problematic pursuit for people of other (or no) genders, if only to highlight that men often have a mission-critical role to play in this endeavour.