The two ideas to fix the gender balance that do not make me cringe

When I was in the penultimate year of high school, at that point where you need to think about universities, all six of the girls in my physics class got a flyer advertising “girl days” at technical universities, during which we could visit and look around without any boys present.

I instantly decided I did not want to attend either the “girl days” in particular, or their universities as a whole. I was offended that someone thought I needed to be treated differently.

I don’t know if this early offense was the cause of it, or just another manifestation of the same thing, but I always get antsy when I see “women in science” features. Ultimately I just don’t want there to even be a reason to have to produce these things. However, in the past few years I have heard stories of women who were not taken seriously at work, who were bullied out of a job, or simply forgotten. So I can see that it’s necessary to do things. I just question what the point is of always showing examples of women in particular careers in the hopes of – what exactly?

So-and-so has a career AND a family – isn’t she amazing? And here’s another feature about how unfair the salary imbalance is. And, I know, let’s hold a panel discussion with four women who barely have time for this because they’re also the token women on every other panel, every committee, and every editorial board. They can talk about how they’re “doing it all”, where “all” is mainly sitting on panels talking about this sort of thing.

And I’m made to feel like I should read all the features and join in the discussion and spend another good portion of my time supporting other women in science, but just like when I was seventeen I don’t WANT to go to “girl days” or talk about women in science. I just want to do my actual work.

That being said, there are two recent initiatives to improve female representation in the science and tech world, and unlike the well-meant flyers and features and endless discussions, I think these two things might actually change something. For the first time since my first encounter with gender issues in science, way back in high school, I did not cringe at “women in science” initiatives. I actually like these ideas, and that’s pretty high praise coming from me!

1. The panel pledge
Proposed by Rebecca Rosen in an Atlantic piece, this amazingly simple idea is already changing the composition of conference panels. Men who have taken this pledge have promised that when they’re invited to speak at a conference or on a panel, they will only accept if there is at least one female speaker.

It’s a brilliant mechanism that uses the voice of men who notice a lack of women, and who are in a position to change that. They can put the pressure on organisers to invite women at a stage where the programme is still being made, which is much more effective than people complaining afterward that they were left out. It’s also a friendly way to remind organisers that they may have overlooked someone.

Since hearing about this, I’ve also made a point of thinking about who I recommend for panels or include in lists of scientists. So far I haven’t caught myself leaving out any women, but if I accidentally do, I’ll be aware of it, and will think a bit further before finalizing my list. I’m also trying not to recommend the usual suspects. There are more women in science than the two or three that always step up.

2. The Finkbeiner test
Ann Finkbeiner proposed to write about a female scientist and not once mention the fact that she is a woman. This idea was expanded by Christie Aschwanden to the “Finkbeiner test”, which you can use to analyse any piece of writing about a woman in science.

“To pass the Finkbeiner test, the 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…”

I like this one because it addresses exactly the things I dislike so much about open house days for girls only or feature articles about women in science. There is no reason to write about women in science any differently than about men in science. It’s exactly that tone, that “look how much she can do! She’s so special!”-attitude that irks me about those features, and that made me avoid particular universities when as a high school student I had to make important choices about my own future in science.

Together, these two ideas say: Treat scientists all the same, regardless of their gender, but be aware that there is more than one gender when looking for representative groups of experts.

About Eva Amsen

Former lab rat, now professional friend of lab rats. I've done research and freelance writing, and currently work in scientific publishing. In my spare time I talk to and write about people who are involved in both music and science. In my remaining spare time I play violin. Sometimes I sleep, but not often. My regular irregularly updated blog is at
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12 Responses to The two ideas to fix the gender balance that do not make me cringe

  1. Sam Cook says:

    I do wonder if sometimes the “look at her she’s amazing she’s a scientist, mother, daughter, wife, husband, world-class gymnast and can play the piano to concert level with her nose” sometimes ends up self defeating. Role models are awesome but people often forget that ‘awe’ can leave you feeling inadequate as well (I know I get this feeling in my field a hell of the lot of the time).

  2. biochembelle says:

    This has been a recurring theme for me this week! I attended a panel discussion on gender bias in academia just last night. One of the panelists was Jo Handelsman, who co-authored the recent PNAS paper on subtle gender bias in science. The possible ‘action items’ for achieving gender balance really focused on combating gender bias (shocking, I know), such as making people aware of the bias that’s present in their field and their department.

    One question was essentially on the Finkbeiner test and the failure of most popular stories about women in science. Handelsman said she thought the stories of powerful women having balance lives could be useful for young scientists, but the profile pages of the NY Times was probably not the place – or if it were, then men needed to be presented in the same way.

  3. chall says:

    I had similar thoughts to what you describe but after a few years in the work force and seeing some more blattant examples of “we didn’t think about that” (well you did since you excluded the women) I’m more in favour of regulations than I thought I’d be…. and more “women’s groups” and “women’s mentor groups” etc. If nothing else, to just realise yet again that you’re not alone.

    That said, I really like the points you’re mentioning. First one is very important since it is hard to be on the look out for committees and such if you’re not part of the discussion. I mean, the ‘token’ woman needs to remember everything, it’s much better if everyone sees the benefit from having a more diverse group when it comes to talks/conferences/what have you.

    The second one is a tricky one I think. I’m the first to be the one saying “it shouldn’t be the woman’s job to sort out the children etc” but when you look at reality of many it happens to be that the ‘mother’ is doing way more. And also is the one tagged for lots of things by others so even if the relationship is equal, the pressure from outside is not…. and therefore it might be helpful for both women and men to read about people who has sorted out their family-job sitaution. Of course, I write ‘people’ and therefore would like it to become more of the norm to write about those things with male professors as much as it is about “female scientists that have it all” [as per the discussion].

    In the meantime though, I guess the way would be to stop writing as much about “the mother who also works in a lab” and focus on these different people with careers….

  4. grrlAlex says:

    A tricky equation to be reconciled: and it will be a great day when we don’t differentiate people’s ability on the basis of their apparent or supposed reproductive anatomy. A really fascinating read is Kristin Schlitt “Just One Of The Guys’ which is a piece of research exploring the experience of transmen – people who presented and lived as female initially but came later to transition and live as male: one of the case studies – an academic – was complimented on “[his] research being so much better than his sister’s” when both papers were actually his, the previous written in the female name. There are some other fascinating insights into gender division that come out from the work – deffo worth a read!

    Alex Drummond – Psychotherapist, Academic, Author, Artist, Artisan and Social Activist 🙂

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Great post, Eva – I hadn’t heard of either of the initiatives you linked to, but I agree that they sound very promising.

    You might not have seen it yet because the UK is always behind on these things, but last week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory involved Leonard, Howard and Sheldon going into a high school to try and sell science as a career to a classroom full of bored teenage girls. The awkwardness and ineffectiveness of their approach were simultaneously hilarious and depressingly familiar…

  6. Harry says:

    Really ? How about studying hard and earning a degree for a change ? You want a place just because you are a girl ? I applied to mit last year got rejected . . Girls who scored less than me got admitted !

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