by Theo Schall



This week, the New York Times published a profile on Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna, one of the discoverers of CRISPR/Cas9, a genome editing technique. Prior to any mention of Doudna’s scientific career, readers are informed that the Harvard-educated biochemist is tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, and that her husband believes she “can handle a lot of pressure.” This is a style of journalism all too common in media coverage of female scientists.


While it would be ridiculous to claim that journalists never describe male scientists’ bodies or mention their spouses, it is far more common for published accounts to touch on female scientists’ appearances, personal relationships, and children. Profiles of men are likelier to stay focused on scientific rigor, academic politics, and the superlatives of success. And while there’s certainly good reasons to discuss, for example, how elite academics juggle the challenges of motherhood and careers, those discussions shouldn’t displace coverage that treats female scientists as scientists first.


This problem is an old one, given men’s historic domination of science and natural philosophy. In recent years, however, critics have begun to push back against media coverage that approaches female scientists as a novelty or mentions childrearing choices before scientific merit. In an infamous 2013 case, the New York Times was forced to change an obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill after readers responded with outrage. Originally, the obituary began “[s]he made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Even in a society with rapidly changing gender roles, it’s inconceivable that a heterosexual male scientist would be described in such terms.


In response to the gender dynamics at play in coverage of science, critics have begun to employ a new tool. The Finkbeiner test is a checklist of things journalists ought to avoid when they write about female scientists, inspired by the Bechdel test for gender bias in movies. To pass the Finkbeiner test, articles about female scientists must not mention the following clichés:


-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…”


The New York Times article on Doudna fails the Finkbeiner test on most counts. It even ends by noting that Doudna “finds herself a role model for women in science.” Why does this matter? Even if she’s a paragon of virtue, this doesn’t make a female scientist newsworthy. Doudna isn’t interesting because of how she looks. She’s not important because of what her husband says about her. She’s not even especially remarkable for overcoming the ingrained sexism of a traditionally male field. That she is a woman, even a woman who is also a scientist, doesn’t make her worthy of general interest media coverage. One argument for inclusion of these details is that they can “humanize” a scientist, but male and female scientists are humanized differently: womanhood and motherhood are given priority over scientific chops in a way manhood and fatherhood are not.


In Doudna’s case, she’s newsworthy because she discovered something important and has taken a lead role in what is shaping up to be an international scientific dialogue about the ethical dimensions of new genomic editing technologies. She’s tangled up in an important patent fight between the University of California, Harvard, and MIT. As a scientist and scholar, Doudna is on the cutting edge – and it is for this reason that she deserves coverage in the New York Times. Her appearance, her parenting, her marriage, her husband’s perspective (all of which are mentioned in the article) are secondary, and in the context of national coverage, arguably irrelevant.


This isn’t to suggest that we should avoid talking about the persistent gender imbalance in science, just that the context matters. It makes sense that an article about sexism in science, work-life balance, or the personal lives of academics should fail the Finkbeiner Test. But those discussions should not fill space that would otherwise be devoted to the value of female scientists’ work. An internationally prominent scientist profiled in the Science section of a major newspaper like the New York Times should be treated as a brilliant scholar, not just as someone’s leggy blonde wife.

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Theo Schall

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