If the obituaries of male scientists were like those of female scientists …

Yvonne Brill died recently. She was a highly respected rocket scientist who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011 from president Obama and was noteworthy enough to merit an obituary in the New York Times. Also noteworthy was the fact that the obituary also focused on her sterling qualities as a mother, wife, and cook, as if her ability to combine the mundane duties of everyday life with her scientific work was her main achievement.

Jennie Dusheck amusingly writes the obituary of Albert Einstein (“Family Man Who Invented Relativity and Made Great Chili Dies”) in the same vein.

The absurd way in which the achievements of women are reported in the media, be it in science or politics or business or entertainment, can be easily noticed if you simply take those descriptions and replace the woman with a man, as Dusheck does. And yet, journalists seem to have not cottoned on to that simple way of checking for this type of bias. There is even a simple checklist called the Finkbeiner test that they can use. To pass, a 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…”

Of course, one can include some of them if they are highly relevant. But the presence of any should send a warning signal to the writer that they should be more alert.

After receiving considerable derision, the newspaper changed the obituary without telling readers that they were doing so. You can see the changes here.


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