NYT Obit Beef: Rocket Scientist Yvonne Brill's Achievement on Back Burner

Image: NYT Obit Beef: Rocket Scientist Yvonne Brill's Achievement on Back Burner October 21, 2011 photo of U.S. President Barack Obama, right, awarding the National Medal of Technology to Yvonne C. Brill.

Monday, 01 Apr 2013 11:48 AM

By Alexandra Ward

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The New York Times has revised the obituary for Yvonne Brill, a pioneering rocket scientist who died Wednesday at age 88, after accusations of sexism swirled when the paper made mention of Brill's cooking skills in the article's opening sentence rather than her science achievements.

In the 1970s, Brill created a design that would become the industry standard — a propulsion system that prevented communications satellites from slipping out of orbit. President Barack Obama gave her an award in 2011 for her groundbreaking work.

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But the beginning of the obituary that ran in Saturday's New York Times made no mention of that accomplishment. Instead, obit writer Douglas Martin's tribute focused on her skills as a mother and a woman in the kitchen.

"She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children," read the opening sentence.

Twitter users balked at the blatant sexism in the obituary.

Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, tweeted that she agreed with readers' outrage, and posted a link to a Columbia Journalism Review article on the gender gap that exists in the sciences.

"There's still a gender gap in the sciences, with far fewer women than men in research jobs, and those women earning substantially less, but it doesn’t help when journalists treat every female scientist they profile as an archetype of perseverance," wrote Curtis Brainard for CJR.

The beginning of the Times revised obit was edited, albeit without acknowledgement, 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."

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