*Two stories, same scientist: Gender and coverage of the Herzberg medal

[Correction: The title of this post has been changed. The title had been “Why do we always have to say she’s a good mom too?” I had meant that title to reflect the historical trend in reporting on women scientists, but in email correspondence from Feb. 23 Ivan Semeniuk has rightly pointed out that the title implied that he had reported on Kaspi as a “good mom”. While he writes about her family, that is not a claim that he makes in his story. I apologize for this implication and have reverted to what was the original draft title of the post.]

This week, Canadian astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi was awarded the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, one of the country’s highest scientific honours. Her work on neutron stars is exciting and important. The way Canadian media have covered the story is important though too, illustrating two polar opposite approaches.

I first read about her honour in an online piece from the CBC, written by Emily Chung: “Victoria Kaspi, neutron star researcher at McGill, wins $1M Herzberg medal”. I was impressed. It isn’t a typical inspiring woman-in-science story. It is a straight forward account of a highly acclaimed scientist. The only mention of her femininity is to state that she is the first woman to win the prize. The rest of piece dives into the complexity of her work, her career path as scientist, and why she is so deserving of the honour.

Only one other national outlet has so far covered the story, and the contrast is startling. Ivan Semeniuk’s piece for the Globe and Mail, “McGill astrophysicist is first woman to win Canada’s top science award” takes the perspective that the award is important precisely because she is a woman.

It is not news to say that women and men, particularly scientists, are treated differently in media coverage. Marcel LaFollette’s review of American popular magazine profiles from 1910-1955 paints a clear picture, where women are profiled as women first and scientists second. She wrote, “Through their language and ideas, magazine biographers echoed such attitudes by asserting that women–even women who were successful scientists—were still more fulfilled through marriage and motherhood than through research” (p. 256-266). LaFollette describes the Saturday Evening Post as “relentless” in their efforts to describe Marie Curie as devoted to her family and husband. And hitting close to home for me, University of Toronto Astronomer Helen Sawyer Hogg, a full professor and internationally recognized specialist in globular clusters, was described by American Magazine as a “housewife”. “Even if her mind is in the sky, Dr. Hogg keeps her feet on the ground. She runs the house for her husband and three kids, collects stamps, makes bedspreads.”

More recently, Orly Shacher (2000) focused on the “Scientists at Work” columns in the New York Times for 1996 and 1997: 30 profiles in all, 6 of women. She found the same common theme. The men were presented as scientists. Biographical details, such as spouses, were mentioned briefly if at all. Hobbies were described in ways that complemented the scientific work, such highlighting the nuclear activism of an atomic physicist. In contrast, the journalists seemed to include excruciating details of struggles of women in science in a way that suggested that there was a need to justify the inclusion of women beyond their professional performance. She proposed that these profiles leave the reader to conclude that to profile a women, there must be a women-in-science story there, not just a story of a scientist who happens to be a women. As she argues, the female profiles exhibit a particular kind of tokenism, where women are presented as symbols rather than as individuals. They are glorified as exceptions and lauded for overcoming hardship but that’s the only reason their story is deemed to be worth telling.

Scientists themselves have expressed frustration with constantly being presented as special cases and as the human face of science, not a scientists. Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger (2009) gathered feedback from 86 prominent women scientists in the UK and many expressed conflicting emotions, saying they were pleased to be able to tell their stories but frustrated that they were only ever presented in that light. “One explained that whenever she made a public statement it was characterize as: ‘female scientist says x, y and z…[but] why should the fact that I am a female make any difference whatsoever?’” As Chimba and Kitzinger conclude, the problem isn’t sharing inspiring stories about women in science and taking opportunities to humanize science by sharing personal stories of these women. These are important things to write about. The problem is that it is overwhelmingly women who are cast in this way and it’s often the only story ever told about them, leaving men to continue to be cast as the objective and authoritative voices of science.

In online science writing circles, the remedy is sometimes referred to as the Finkbeiner test. Science journalist Christie Ashwanden coined it while describing her colleague’s (Ann Finkbeiner’s) frustration with having to write endless inspiring woman-in-science stories instead of science stories about women. It is meant to guide writers in talking about high profile scientists in venues where their work should be taking centre stage. Passing the test means refraining from mentioning: 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 Chung’s CBC piece about Kaspi and the Herzberg medal is exactly this. Except for mentioning that Kaspi is the first woman to receive the prize, absolutely every remaining word of the story is about her as a scientist.”Much of her research has been on pulsars, a special kind of neutron star that spins at enormous speeds while beaming out radio waves that can be detected in rhythmic pulses on Earth.” “Kaspi’s research has had ‘major impacts in the field of astrophysics,’ NSERC says.”

Chung writes in a way that humanizes Kaspi, but when she does so she humanizes her as a scientist: as someone who was surprised and thrilled to receive a prestigious honour, even as a Star Trek fan. From Chung’s description, I have no idea if Kaspi has children, what her husband does (if she has one) or how she manages her work-life balance. It’s just a story about a great scientist who does world-renowned work on “zombie stars”. And who doesn’t like the sound of that?

Semeniuk’s treatment in the Globe and Mail could hardly be more different. It is the epitome of an inspiring woman-in-science story. Instead of leading with the research, the second sentence goes directly into framing Kaspi as a role model and someone who has struggled and won as a woman in science. “Victoria Kaspi, director of the McGill Space Institute, is the first woman to claim the prestigious award in its 25-year history, a startling reminder of the overwhelming gender imbalance that persists at the highest levels of Canadian academia.” The next two paragraphs aren’t even about Kaspi, but instead about how this honour “signals to girls and young women that science is exciting and it’s possible to achieve the highest honour”, in words of Mario Pinto, President of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council who administers the award. Kaspi’s research then receives several solid paragraphs, before sliding into some strange attention to the hominess of the décor of her research facility and then the seemingly inevitable paragraph about her husband, his job, their children and how busy her life is. (Which I’m honestly sure it is.) All this before capping off the near Finkbeiner clean-sweep with a description her attention to gender issues as a mentor.

The deliberate choice to frame this as an inspiring woman-in-science story is highlighted by the fact that Semeniuk himself covered last year’s male winner. That Kaspi is female is not what made this newsworthy, the prize itself is. Last year’s profile of Dalhousie University chemist Axel Becke is all business, opening with an anecdote about convincing a colleague about the value of his new analysis methods over lunch and going on to describe the immense impact of his work. The only personal details are in a short paragraph about how he came to Canada from Germany as a child, details that are also included in the piece on Kaspi. He isn’t framed as a role model and his accomplishments as a potential family man are completely absent.

Now I don’t want to fault Semeniuk for drawing attention to gender imbalance. And if these details are important to Kaspi’s own story as a scientist, then she should tell them as often and as loudly as she wants. But for writers like Semeniuk, I would argue that taking the focus away from her scientific accomplishments may instead reinforce the stereotypes he might have hoped to break. Write a great piece on the under representation of women in the upper levels of Canadian science departments for tomorrow’s paper. I would absolutely love to read it. But by turning Kaspi’s award into an inspiring woman-in-science story it becomes just one more example that no matter how high the honour, the fact that a woman can do that and also manage her home life is why we should admire her. Rather than signalling to girls that science is attainable, the never ending repetition of this style of story (for more than a century now) sends the same messages as those examples studied by LaFollette and Shacher: 1) Women have to be a particular type of super woman to be worthwhile, not only as scientists but accomplished as wives and mothers and 2) A woman’s story in science is only worth telling if it’s an inspiring woman-in-science story and not just because she does outstanding work. By using a style that highlights elements of tokenism (Look! A successful woman! A role model!) the place of women as irregular participants in science is reinforced, not challenged.

February 29, 2016: Ivan Semeniuk has kindly provided a response. His correspondence and my reply can be found in this post: Herzberg medal coverage follow up.


Chimba, M. D., & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Bimbo or boffin? Women in science: an analysis of media representations and how female scientists negotiate cultural contradictions. Public Understanding of Science.
LaFollette, M. C. (1988). Eyes on the stars: Images of women scientists in popular magazines. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 13(3/4), 262-275.
Shachar, O. (2000). Spotlighting women scientists in the press: Tokenism in science journalism. Public Understanding of Science, 9(4), 347-358.
 [Edit, February 19, 2016: The fifth sentence in the final paragraph previously read: “But by turning Kaspi’s award into an inspiring woman-in-science story it becomes just one more example that no matter how high the honour, how a woman manages her home life is why we should admire her.” It has been edited to express my thought my clearly.]


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