Women in science: an experiment of reversed Finkbeiner test

by Elisa Nichelli (INAF)

For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Elisa Nichelli, Public Outreach Officer of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), oganised a smart prank. She used the “Finkbeiner test”, which was proposed as a tool to avoid sexism in profiles of women scientists, to interview four male scientists on their life as husbands and fathers. Many have laughed and probably have learned something. Others – especially in Twitter – have reacted very, very badly.
We asked Elisa to tell us how it went. (Fabio Turone)


February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a United Nations initiative dedicated to stress the role of women in scientific research and to promote full and equal access in the Stem fields to girls and women. This year, in order to celebrate this day originally, together with Marco Malaspina, editor in chief of Media Inaf, besides two interviews with women scientists, which we published for the occasion, we decided to organize a live streaming event interviewing four male researchers, to whom we proposed a Reversed Finkbeiner experiment. 

The Finkbeiner Test was first proposed by Christie Aschwanden, an American science journalist. It’s a list of topics that is better to avoid when describing a female scientist if you don’t want to fall into the stereotypical representation of the woman who makes her way in the world of research “despite her role as mother and wife”, or “thanks to a husband who supports her”. Our experiment therefore consisted in gathering four male colleagues and asking them a series of questions that traced all stereotypes, but reversed to the male role. The satirical approach was evident starting from the title of the video: “Husbands, fathers and men in science” (literally: “Mariti, padri e uomini nella scienza”), and also the description of the video deliberately followed the paternalistic tones with which we often talk about women in science (“we thought we would give voice to the other mistreated half of heaven: men, who in addition to being husbands and fathers can also deal with science and obtain results on a par with female colleagues”). Thanks to the complicity of the male researchers who have wonderfully played their role in this upside-down game, a paradoxical and comic effect has been created, which has shown how – by reversing the roles – all those references to family and domestic commitments, or to the scientist’s physical appearance became absurd and ridiculous.

The feedback from female and male colleagues has been extremely positive so far, as well as the one from most of the users who follow us on social networks. We met the only exception on Twitter, where the post we used to launch the live event has currently more than 280 retweets and hundreds of comments containing mostly bad words or invitations to shut up men on a day dedicated to women. As it often happens on social media (see for example the work of Walter Quattrociocchi and his research group), most of the indignation comes from those who have not even read the title of the video, and undoubtedly have not viewed the content. Such reaction was immediately triggered by the accompanying text: “Today February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. And what about men?”. However, what struck me most is that a good portion of the public claims to have seen the interview and still believe it is wrong to let men talk, despite the clear provocative and satirical intentions. This, in my opinion, demonstrates how important it is –  when talking about these delicate and polarising topics, that try to break down ideological barriers – to burst the so-called “filter bubbles” and stop taking oneself too seriously.