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Yvonne Brill and a discussion of benevolent sexism

April 8, 2013

One of the stories all over the interwebz in the last couple of weeks was the obituary for Yvonne Brill, which began with the now-infamous lede,

“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 help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

The fallout was immediate, with lots of Twitter and Facebook feeds declaring it horribly inappropriate to focus on the domestic life of the woman being written about because of her technical accomplishment. This was followed by an equally swift backlash, from both men and women, of, “well, being a mom and a cook were important in her life, so why shouldn’t we celebrate them”?

I posted links and read blogs and argued with friends and family, trying to crystallize why I thought the Brill obit was inappropriate, and moreover, an example of sexism in journalism. I’m not going to use WIPS as a bitch-fest soapbox on just another sexist thing that made me feel angry. But, two things came out of it that I think are actually worth some of your time.

First, the stroganoff line was what people used as shorthand for casting this remarkable woman first in the guise of her womanhood and second for her accomplishments. When the comments erupted, the author deleted the stroganoff mention, but retained the part about following her husband and being a great mom. It’s a common convention when writing about women to give space to how they manage their lives as women, as moms, as nurturing mentors, and oh yeah, scientists. It’s fair to say that everyone eulogized in the New York Times also was a good mom or dad or had hobbies and lives and family situations, but that’s not what earned them a spot in the New York Times, so shouldn’t be the topic of the story. Casting female scientists this way puts their “otherness” first and implies that their accomplishments are made “in addition to” or even “in spite of” their gender responsibilities.

This convention led Christie Aschwanden to develop the “Finkbeiner test” for science writing ( to help journalists recognize this crutch and to really think about their writing. Similar in spirit to the Bechdel test for movies, to pass the Finkbeiner test, an a 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…”

The article also links to some super examples of articles about female scientists where the only clue is the pronoun she. When you read them, you focus on the science, as intended. Having said that, even the Finkbeiner guidelines acknowledge that there is an appropriate time to talk about women as women first, and to cast their accomplishments among their gender roles. This is what we do all the time on WIPS interviews, which I’m very proud of. But it’s the intent of this series to do that – to share our experiences being a woman in science, and to talk about problems, solutions, and issues that go along with gender. In addition, obituaries or other stories in one’s hometown paper might want to focus on someone’s role as mom, or scout troop leader, or community activist, or church member, or whatever the most important role of that person was to them.

The Finkbeiner guidelines are one way to easily guide science writers out of the larger, more concerning issue of “benevolent sexism” ( This is a very real thing that I’m glad there is a name for, because a lot of what we discuss on the blog, or at LPSC events, or with each other, boils down to this. The days of men outright telling a woman she can’t or shouldn’t be a scientist because she is female are nearly over (thank goodness), yet many of us share the experience of having been paid an apparent compliment, with the result of feeling lessened or undermined, and being told to “lighten up” when the remarker is genuinely surprised when you’re upset.

This really great article discusses why the Brill article was unsettling (and as a bonus discusses the kerfluffle when Facebook found out the person behind I Fucking Love Science is female). “In social psychology, these seemingly-positive-yet-still-somewhat-unsettling comments and behaviors have a name: Benevolent Sexism. Although it is tempting to brush this experience off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent, benevolent sexism is both real and insidiously dangerous.” It also links to the original research.

But I don’t want this to be a complete downer. Yvonne Brill was a beloved member of the space community and many of the women in planetary science knew and/or worked with her. As Marcia Smith at said,

“One silver lining of the imbroglio over the New York Times’s bungling of Yvonne Brill’s obituary is that it has piqued people’s curiosity about her. There’s no better way to learn more about her amazing career than to hear it in her own words. On April 2, 2009, Yvonne gave the 32nd Astronautics and Aeronautics Department Lester D. Gardner Lecture at MIT, another one of the honors bestowed upon her ( It is a technical presentation, mostly about communications satellites and their propulsion systems, but I think you’ll feel like you’ve met Yvonne if you watch it. She was 84 when she gave this lecture.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2013 12:59 pm

    Great post Barb!

    Yes, a lot of my discussions have also been turning to the fact that we have a slightly different battle to fight now. There is not nearly as much overt sexism (agreed, thank goodness!), but, in addition to benevolent sexism, there is more and more research about the even more subtle aspects of subconscious bias that we all have. These aspects seem no more or less challenging to overcome, but may require a different kind of approach… certainly awareness is a big first step though!

    There is one thing about Christie Aschwanden’s “Finkbeiner test” that I would prefer to not be a hard and fast rule… and that is the part about mentioning that someone is the first woman to do X. Although I don’t think that should ever be the highlight of a story about someone, unless they want it to be, I do feel like sometimes it is giving a women (well-deserved) credit for paving the way for others. And I think it can be inspiring for those who find themselves still in the position of being the only or first woman to do Y.

  2. April 8, 2013 10:01 am

    This is an excellent discourse on how an accomplished woman still can be subjugated to “benevolent” sexism, despite that it is 2013! No one would ever, ever consider mentioning in an obituary that (insert any male scientist’s name) could make a mean beef stroganoff, especially in an opening sentence. Well done, Barbylon!

    • October 16, 2013 3:16 pm

      Every accomplished woman will always be subject to benevolent sexism as usual since society looks down upon breadwinning alpha females and praises breadwinnning alpha males instead.

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