After a Rocket Scientist's 'Stroganoff' Obit, How Can We Check Ourselves for Bias?

4 years ago

Folk wisdom says that everything comes in threes. That's not true in the old, old story of human bias, stereotyping, and being unaware of your internal blinders. But I'll use the most recent three events involving women in STEM fields to think this through: The recent New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill; the the Finkbeiner Test for writing about women in STEM; and the recent furor about Adria Richards speaking up at PyCon.

Yvonne Brill receives award from President Obama via

Writing an Obituary for a Rocket Scientist

There has been enough outcry since the initial story at the New York Times about Yvonne Brill appeared that the text has changed. But Margaret Sullivan, in the Times; opinion pages, provides the original text, in Gender Questions Arise in Obituary of Rocket Scientist and Her Beef Stroganoff.

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

Sullivan mentions talking to the obituaries editor, who said he never imagined that this approach would be considered sexist. This prompted Christie Aschwanden, of the Finkbeiner Test, to tweet.

Amid all the complaints about Brill's obituary, people came to the defense of its writer, including other obituary editors -– women among them.

Deborah Blum, in the MIT Science Journal article A Recipe for Trouble: The NYT's cookery-infused obit for a pioneering female rocket scientist points to this:

At The Washington Post, for instance, Melinda Henninberger expressed some sympathy for the Times obit writer, Douglas Martin. He had been trying for something warm and light, she suggested, not to insult the accomplishments of the scientist.

To turn this around, take a look at the opening paragraph in a parody obit, Family Man Who Invented Relativity Dies,

He made sure he shopped for groceries every night on the way home from work, took the garbage out, and hand washed the antimacassars. But to his step daughters he was just Dad. ”He was always there for us,” said his step daughter and first cousin once removed Margo.

Who died? Oh, Albert Einstein.

The Finkbeiner Test: a Revisit

Let's remind ourselves of how to pass the Finkbeiner Test:

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 . . .

Emily Willingham from Double X Science wrote An obituary fail of the Finkbeiner test. She points out more failures in the obituary:

The NY Times piece doesn’t even get into the detail of her contributions until the eighth paragraph. Has there ever been an obituary about a male scientist with details about his scientific contributions buried eight paragraphs in? Or details anywhere about what a great cook he is? The Washington Post piece barely gives details about her science, getting to them at paragraph 17 and saving a great description of the system she designed almost for the very end of the piece.

Just to be clear that I'm not heaping blame only on the Times: We are talking about a rampant problem.

We're so used to thinking in stereotypes about women, that -- much like this obituaries editor seemingly did -- we may not even notice when we write about women in science and technology in ways that are different from the way we write about men.

Sheryl Sandberg talks about stereotypical thinking about women in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She explains how it holds women back, but also how it holds men back from finding good solutions, good workers, and ultimately, the greatest success and profit in business.

Sandberg was interviewed on 60 Minutes recently. Here's what I wrote on my blog Web Teacher about that interview:

I read about the [Finkbeiner] test yesterday, and then I saw Sheryl Sandberg on 60 Minutes last night. Partway through the interview, her husband appeared at her side. And, sure enough, there were some shots of him at work and some discussion of how HIS accomplishments had been important in HER career. It was couched in terms of how his support and encouragement were important for her, and how important it is for a woman to choose a life mate who will support her career. Nevertheless, it means 60 Minutes failed the test.

The interviewer on 60 Minutes was a woman. It isn't just men who have unexamined biases.

Adria Richards and PyCon: When Bias Turns Bully

With biases and stereotypes firmly in place among the majority of people, it can be dangerous to speak out against any offense perpetrated on a minority by the majority. The majority can rise up in unison like a gigantic bully in defense of its entrenched biases and stereotypes.

Let's use what happened to Adria Richards as our example. She let everyone know about behavior she deemed unacceptable at a tech conference. Her reward included threats of rape, murder and other dangers. And she was fired from her job.

In A White Boy's Observations of Sexism and the Adria Richards Fiasco at Good Math, Bad Math, MarkCC said,

Here's the fundamental issue that underlies all of this, and many similar stories: our society is deeply sexist and racist. We are all raised in an environment in which mens voices are more important than womens. It's so deeply ingrained in us that we don't even notice it.

What this means is that we are all to some degree, sexist, and racist. When I point this out, people get angry. We also have learned that sexism is a bad thing. So when I say to someone that you are sexist, it's really easy to interpret that as me saying that you're a bad person: sexism is bad, if I'm sexist, them I'm bad.

But we really can't get away from this reality. We are sexists. For many of us, we're not deliberately sexist, we're not consciously sexist. But we are sexist.

He tells several stories about his own awakening to the sexism in society. And he explains the reaction of those doing the offending -– the people who were "just joking" or who "didn't realize it would be interpreted as sexist" or who think the complainer is "overreacting: or "too sensitive."

That's the situation that women -- particularly women in tech -- find themselves in every day. We are sexist. We do mistreat women in tech every day, without even knowing that we're doing it. And we're very likely to take offense if they mention that we did something wrong. Because we know that we're good people, and since we aren't deliberately doing something bad, they must be wrong.

Passing the Test

We know we're good people. We aren't deliberately doing something bad. We're just blind. Blind to our bias. Blind to stereotypical thinking. We'll defend our thinking, no matter how faulty, with name calling and threats and crazed arguments. We'll defend our herd for as long as the bias and the stereotypes go unexamined. We'll turn water hoses on civil rights marchers. We'll suggest that teachers should carry guns because bad people have guns. We'll use the pulpit of a church to preach hatred. We'll suggest to a woman who speaks out in a predominately male conference that she should go shoot herself.

Ronni Bennett from Time Goes By has a sort of Finkbeiner Test for writing about elders. She says if you substitute the word "black" for the word "elder" or "senior" or "boomer" it's easy to see the bias involved in stories about elders. Way back in 1994, Gloria Steinem published a book called Moving Beyond Words, in which she included the gender-reversing essay "What if Freud were Phyllis?" to point out the bias in our thinking about women. Movies have the Bechdel Test to check if a film is biased against women.

Here's what I was dreaming this morning just as I woke up. Someone was interviewing me. They stuck a microphone in my face and asked, "What do you think about gay people." I answered, "What do I think about people?" as if I didn't understand the question. "No," the interviewer said, "what do you think about gay people." I answered, "People are people. Did some other kind of being arrive from another planet?"

How can you wake up, examine your own stereotypes, your own biases? Test yourself. Do your own gender-reversal. Ask if you're really listening or merely reacting. Check yourself before you wreck yourself, as the saying goes, and see where you might be defending herd mentality instead of thinking about what's really happening. Don't be awake only in your dreams.

Virginia DeBolt, BlogHer Section Editor for Tech
Virginia blogs at Web Teacher and First 50 Words.

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