The Finkbeiner Test: 7 Rules to Avoid Gender Profiling

June 16, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

A compliment is a compliment is a compliment, right? Not according to the Finkbeiner Test.

Film has the Bechdel Test, which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women (who have names) who talk to each other about something other than a man, but science has taken this investigation one step further and can now claim the Finkbeiner Test.

Is it inappropriate to profile women in STEM in relation to their roles as mothers? Some think so.

The Bechdel Test first appeared in 1985 in a comic strip entitled “Dykes to Watch Out For,” penned by Alison Bechdel. It has become a standard barometer for judging the presence of women in film, despite its limitations. But the Finkbeiner Test, instead of revealing a lack of individuality and agency in fictional women, is designed to call attention to compliments of women based on stereotypes. (For a list of examples of these stereotypes, visit

In 2013, freelancer Christie Aschwanden wrote a post (that has since been removed) on Double X Science, a site dedicated to bring “science to the woman in you, whoever she is, whatever she does.” Though the original post can no longer be found, the Columbia Journalism Review sums up Aschwanden’s creation of the Finkbeiner Test nicely. Aschwanden, the lead writer for science at FiveThirtyEight and a health columnist for The Washington Post, observed:

“Campaigns to recognize outstanding female scientists have led to a recognizable genre of media coverage. Let’s call it ‘A lady who…’ genre. You’ve seen these profiles, of course you have, because they’re everywhere. The hallmark of ‘A lady who…’ profile is that it treats its subject’s sex as her most defining detail. She’s not just a great scientist, she’s a woman! And if she’s also a wife and a mother, those roles get emphasized too.”

She wrote that such gender profiles are gratuitous, and that pointing out a woman’s accomplishments alongside phrases like “she is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research” leads to an “archetype of perseverance.” The seven-part Finkbeiner Test grew out of a story that Aschwanden’s friend, science writer Ann Finkbeiner (pictured at the top of the page), tells regarding an assignment to profile a female astronomer, Andrea Ghez, in Nature. Finkbeiner decided to pretend the subject of her article was just an astronomer, instead of digging into her family and personal life. She has expressed full support for Aschwanden’s test, and thinks it should be applied to general-interest scientist profiles such as those in The New York Times or Nature.

The Finkbeiner Test decries mentioning, in some publications, a woman is the first in her field to achieve recognition. Source: Flickr, user Spudgun67

The Finkbeiner Test has seven parts. In order for a story to pass, it must not mention:

  1. The fact that she's a woman
  2. Her husband's job
  3. Her child-care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she's such a role model for other women
  7. How she's "the first woman to..."

The last point on the list has been contentious for Finkbeiner. She explains that when writing about Andrea Ghez, she discovered she was the first woman to win a certain award. She decided to stick to the seven points of the Finkbeiner test. She explains in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, “The fact that she’s the first woman to do that says a lot more about the prize-giving committee than it does about her. […] So if I were going to put that into a story, it would be a story about prejudice in that prize committee.” She also defends the second to last point that dictates the story must not tell how the woman subject of an article is a role model for other women. Says Finkbeiner:

“That comment is endemic to the field. I had to get some outside quotes for the profile of this astronomer, and every single one said, ‘…and she’s a great role model,’ and I didn’t put any of that in. Scientists, male and female, tend to be role models for their students and younger colleagues, and I’ve just heard it too often.”

So, is a solution to instead ask men who are scientists about their spouses and child-care? Chad Orzel on ScienceBlogs seems to think so, writing, “As long as we are going to have children – and I hope we all agree that just not having kids is not an acceptable solution – somebody is going to have to take care of those children. And short of a complete overhaul of our entire society, that means one or both of that child’s parents. If that burden isn’t going to fall disproportionately on women, that means it has to be acceptable and even expected that men are an active part of this process. […] Rather than moving to a world where we don’t just ask ‘Who takes care of your kids?’ of women, I’d prefer to see a world where we do ask, ‘Who takes care of your kids?’ of men.”

Finkbeiner herself commented on Orzel’s post, saying, “We’re not disagreeing here. I’m sure we both agree that personal life info has been a stock part of profiles of women’s profiles and much less so of men’s, and that imbalance ought to stop.” But she also maintains that mentioning a scientist’s family or kids, regardless of gender, should be reserved for “journal articles or talks or newsletters for scientist audiences,” and should be left out of profiles of scientists for larger audiences. She believes the subjects of these articles are normal human beings, and the science is what makes them interesting. “If you want to humanize them, talk about their motivations. Talk about how they got interested in their field. Talk about the part of their life that led them to become such an interesting scientist – because childcare is not interesting.”

At Vancouver-based Talk Science To Me, writer Jakob contends that science journalism has “achieved routine tokenism” and is taking baby steps towards meeting the requirements of the Finkbeiner Test. Do you agree that science journalism is doing better at profiling women in STEM? Try applying the Finkbeiner Test to these types of articles and let us know over at Facebook or Twitter!