Barack Obama awards the National Medal of Technology to Yvonne C. Brill for innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems.

Barack Obama awards the National Medal of Technology to Yvonne C. Brill for innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems. Photo: Win McNamee

Earlier this week we saw the death of a high profile woman (Margaret Thatcher) interrupt the news cycle on an international scale, but last week a much more unlikely obituary caused a social media outcry.

“She made a mean beef stroganoff” was the start of an obituary that made the New York Times the target of sexism accusations. Focusing on Yvonne Brill’s cooking, instead of her career as a rocket scientist, the obituary itself became the story, and was quickly changed by the editor. As a female astrophysicist the headlines caught my attention. As a regular reader of the New York Times obituaries it certainly seemed out of step with the usual style.

Was this just a journalist making a meal out of attempted irony, or a symptom of wider sexism at the Times? Many commenters claimed “this would never be written about a man”. But is this true?

The Times has a consistent, recognisable obituary style, including the opening sentence. Having now read thousands of first sentences in the past week, I can say that from Ann Barzel, “a dance writer and historian whose tenacity and passion for the art form were legendary”, to Zypora Spaisman, “who did everything to keep Yiddish theater alive”, all of them focused on the subject’s main achievements. It seems the Brill obituary can be excused as an anomaly, but is that the end of the story?

I decided to explore gender in Times obituaries statistically by analysing a collection of over 15,000 articles – all of the obituaries published in the New York Times between 1995 and 2010. Obviously reading all of these would be very slow, so I have applied some text mining techniques to identify the gender of the departed, and categorise their area of influence.

Overall, only 17% of all obituaries were about women, and this percentage was essentially unchanged over the 15-year period. Is it really possible that less than one in five people who make a significant impact on American life are women?

One response is that obituaries are a snapshot of the past. The average age of subjects is 75. The peak of a person’s influence is typically in the middle of their lives, so these results are a reflection of gender division in the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe we need to wait another 20 years?

If this were the case, we could expect to see some change over time as women take on more significant roles. Earlier research found that in 1966, 18% of Times obituaries were about women. The peak influence of these people would have been in the 1930s. It is difficult to believe that between the 1930s and the 1970s, despite major social changes including World War II and second wave feminism, the percentage of influential women has remained unchanged.

So who gets an obituary in the New York Times? The most well-represented category are performing artists and entertainers (including actors, directors, musicians and dancers), accounting for 18% of all obituaries. Next are creative artists (including artists, novelists, sculptors and poets), accounting for 15%. Following this are people in the political sphere, and science and medicine, both at 9% each, and sports people and business leaders, both at 7%.

Looking at how women are represented in these categories is informative. Women are best represented in the arts (about 25% of the obituaries), but in all other significant categories there are around 10% women. If we exclude the arts, the representation of women in science, medicine, politics, law and business is even worse than the overall statistics show. Nevertheless, reading through the obituaries revealed many interesting women who revolutionised their fields, such as Shirley Polykoff, “the pioneering advertising woman who came up with a single double-entendre that changed the face, or rather turned the heads, of American society”.

All the buzz has been about the Times, but how does our local media compare? My analysis of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age obituaries between 2000 and 2009 shows that 23% of the subjects are women. This is somewhat higher than the Times, but again the figure shows no change over the decade. However, we have much more consistent representation across the significant categories: arts, science and medicine, politics, and business.

Going back to the original question: would someone ever write the “beef stroganoff” sentence for a man? Search for cooking-related introductions didn’t reveal any similar cases, although it did reveal Mary Jenkins Langston, “who cooked for Elvis Presley for 14 years, serving him meatloaf, banana icebox pie and his beloved fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches”.

Opening with Yvonne Brill’s cooking skills was an uncharacteristic blunder, but the rest of the obituary rightly celebrated her amazing career and life. The real pity is she is amongst the relatively few influential women who the New York Times deems worthy of remembering.

Dr Tara Murphy is an astrophysicist at The University of Sydney.
Additional research on this piece by James Curran.