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AAAS Fellow Ann Finkbeiner Set a New Standard for Writing About Women Scientists

Ann Finkbeiner. Credit: Carl Finkbeiner.

In 2013, science writer and AAAS Fellow Ann Finkbeiner wrote a blog post that has changed the way journalists all over the world approach writing about roughly half the people who work in science. In that post, she declared that she would never again write anything about a woman scientist that she wouldn't write about a man.

That, in brief, is the "Finkbeiner Test," which fellow science writer Christie Aschwanden refined into seven bullet points on the Double X Science website and launched into the public consciousness. To pass the Finkbeiner Test, Aschwanden wrote, a story about a woman scientist 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, that she’s "such a role model for other women," or that she’s the “first woman to…”

After years of being required to prod only her female subjects about their domestic and gender-related activities, sometimes to the exclusion of their science, Finkbeiner had concluded that the information wasn’t interesting.

The last straw for her was an assignment for a profile of an astronomer who happened to be a woman. The male editor suggested Finkbeiner talk with her subject's female graduate students about whether she was a good mentor to them, as women, and to explore how she felt about leading a team that would compete with another team headed by an established male astronomer.

Finkbeiner had had enough. She decided she wasn't going to do it.

"I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman," Finkbeiner wrote in her famous post on The Last Word on Nothing, a blog she still writes for. "I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer."

The timing of her manifesto, and Aschwanden's crisp rendition of it, was fortuitous.

"Christie's post went viral because a week after it came out, the New York Times ran a story about a woman scientist that led with the fact that she made a mean beef stroganoff," says Finkbeiner.

That was the infamous Yvonne Brill obituary, about a pioneering rocket scientist who created propulsion systems that help keep communications satellites true to their orbits. The piece set off a furious pushback; the bit about the beef stroganoff was later edited out.

Finkbeiner admits she has since run into a couple of situations in which she has been tempted to violate her own rule. One was about a scientist "who didn't start blooming until she was in her 50s, when most scientists are dropping off the twig"; the second was about a different scientist who had gone to great lengths to advocate for other women in her field.

"I told them about the Finkbeiner Test. I said I would be willing to not follow it in writing about them," she says. "They both said, 'It would be a great relief if you did follow it.' Women scientists don't necessarily want to be role models. They don't necessarily want to be valiant. They just want to be scientists."

Finkbeiner's nomination as a 2018 AAAS Fellow came as "a complete surprise," but she does allow that the Finkbeiner Test may have had something to do with the nomination. She gives her fellow writer Aschwanden most of the credit for getting it out into the realm of public discussion.

Finkbeiner, who has always freelanced, has written for publications that include Science, Scientific American, Nature, The New York Times and Discover; as well as for the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences; and she has also written three books.

Her advice for others? Good science writing also must be clear and direct, says Finkbeiner, who for 20 years taught and directed a science-writing graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives.

Still, even with decades of both teaching and writing experience, channeling scientific knowledge into accessible articles for the public hasn't always been easy for a writer who was an English major in college. Finkbeiner says, though, that knowing how to tell a story is crucial to effective science writing.

"And you can't impose it from the outside. You have to ask, 'What is the story that the science itself is telling?'" she says.

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Delia O'Hara