How We Profile Women and Men: Or, Are Women Moms and Cooks First, Scientists Second?

Recent discussion on Twitter and various websites has focused on how women scientists are portrayed in the media. The discussion stems from a recent New York Times obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill who died at 88 and was introduced first, in the obituary, (for more, see this Salon article), with this sentence:

“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.”

Later on, they got to the whole “rocket scientist” part (enormously impressive in any era, but especially for the era in which she worked when few women would have been able to demonstrate such skill).

The opening was later changed to read:

“She was a brilliant rocket scientist who 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.”

Some discussion has focused on how to profile female scientists (dead or alive), including this article by Curtis Brainard that appears in the Columbia Journalism Review and that suggests, as examples, not referencing the woman’s husband’s job (assuming she is married to a man), her child-care arrangements (again, assuming she has children), or the fact that she’s a woman (these are part of the so-called Finkbeiner Test, in honor of Ann Finkbeiner, a journalist who wrote about writing about women).

Now, I am certainly convinced that there are notable differences in how we write about women and men, scientists or otherwise. However, I am not convinced that the only solution is to write about people’s careers first and foremost – to do this for women, as it’s been done for men. Yes, the person’s career is likely why people are interested in them (e.g., why they are being profiled or why their obituary is being featured in the New York Times). But must the career always been the lead? Must work-life accomplishments always be how someone is defined first and foremost? Maybe it’s okay to talk about someone being the “world’s best mom” up front as long as it’s also okay to write about a man being the “world’s best dad”, even if he too was a rocket scientist.

One idea is to ask living people who are being profiled how they see themselves or to ask the living relatives or partners of deceased people who are being profiled how that person saw him or herself. That might inform how the journalist profiles a particular man or woman. Yes, he or she may be a rocket scientist or a plant biologist or a nurse or school teacher or state representative… but maybe he or she is also a loving parent or partner or passionate about painting. The profile may be largely about that person’s work, but I think it makes us all more human to one another when we flesh each other out. Just think of books you like: yes, Harry Potter was a great wizard, but he felt he was more than his scar and more than a young wizard who had repeatedly triumphed over Lord Voldemort; he also had close-knit friendships, a pet owl he adored, and a heart that ached for his parents. Or, in a short story perhaps fewer have read (but more should, in my opinion) – Junot Diaz’s A Cheater’s Guide to Love (from This Is How You Lose Her) – that the main character is a published novelist and a university professor is not what keeps us reading. Rather, we keep turning pages because of what the story says about his experiences with love and lust and sex and heartbreak.

That is what life is about for many of us, even if we go to work for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day.

I can only speak for myself, but even though I spend significant chunks of my day on my work related to sexuality research and education and writing (I write books and columns), it is 100% okay with me if profiles of me, while I am living or after I am dead, talk first about the smoky flavored roasted red tomato sauce I’ve learned to make, the zinnias and hydrangeas I spend hours tending to in the garden, or my love of long walks. Talk about my home life before my work life. Talk about my love of manatees and warm breezes and my family and friends. All of that is worth more, to me, than my work as a scientist or educator, even though I know that people value the work I have accomplished as a scientist and educator (as I do, too). But that work doesn’t define me. Sometimes I sigh a little inside when people introduce me to their friends or colleagues only in regard to my work, only because I feel it’s limiting in some way. And the people I most enjoy being around are the people who don’t treat me as a “sex researcher” or an “author” but as Debby, who likes to eat good food and sit and talk for hours with the people she loves.

That said, work does define some people. I recently met a woman who – within minutes of meeting – spouted off several of her very impressive career accomplishments. As I watcher her meet other people that evening, and then speak to a crowd, I heard her recite those same accomplishments. When I came across her bio (which she had supplied), I saw those same accomplishments listed there was well. Clearly, they were important to her and, were she to be profiled tomorrow, she would likely wanted them listed front and center. I, however, would not want that same thing for myself.

What I would like to see is more about men and their personal and home lives, when it suits those men, just as I’d like to see that for women. It makes us all so much more human. Even if it’s part of image management and publicity, I have loved seeing images of Barack Obama with his wife and his girls, photos of him playing in the White House with a small child dressed up as Spiderman, and being “not impressed” with Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney. It’s nice for many people, myself included, to see him as more than the President of the United States, and I can’t help but imagine that he might like to be remembered for more than his career (as impressive as it is) too.

So, yes. Let’s continue to point out how women and men are reflected and reported on differently. Let’s also create more spaces for us to draw out each other’s humanity rather than use traditional ways of reporting that perhaps don’t work well for anyone, regardless of their gender or sex.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.