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Urging action, a new film paints a harrowing portrait of female scientists’ experiences in academia

Picture a Scientist

Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck, directors
Uprising LLC
95 minutes
Streaming via select theaters 12–26 June 2020.

Sweeping in scope yet intimately compelling, Picture a Scientist tells the stories of three female scholars, revealing the systemic and structural nature of gender discrimination and harassment in academic science. The film shows how intersections of sexism and racism shape experiences differently for white women and for women of color and how implicit bias both generates inequity and prevents us from noticing it. It reveals injustices ranging from subtle slights and salary gaps to bullying and physical assault. And it reminds us of the power of women’s collective action; the value of social science research in analyzing and responding to inequality; and the importance of allies and advocates, especially in university leadership.

Biologist Nancy Hopkins shows what convivial conspiracies can hatch over lunch with a colleague, when one dares to act. In the early 1990s, convinced that male colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were afforded more lab space than their female counterparts, she took a tape measure to her own lab and to the lab spaces of male colleagues in the dead of night, carefully documenting the disparity. With this data-driven approach, Hopkins gained the support of her female colleagues and upper-level administrators and went on to lead a more comprehensive study investigating salary gaps, access to day care, and other inequities in need of redress (1).

But the sexism Hopkins experienced during her career was not always subtle. In the film, she recounts a shocking groping incident that occurred when she was an undergraduate presenting her work to a visiting colleague. Stunned by the encounter and certain that no one would believe her over her perpetrator, she resolved to act as though nothing unusual had occurred, answering the Nobelist’s questions without mention of the offense.

Sexual harassment is more often a “put-down” than a “come-on,” explains anthropologist Kate Clancy in the film’s narration, as geoscientist Jane Willenbring reveals how she was bullied, humiliated, and assaulted while conducting fieldwork in Antarctica as a graduate student in 1999. After nearly two decades of silence, she felt compelled to speak out against the perpetrator when her young daughter began expressing scientific aspirations of her own. Willenbring’s Title IX complaint resulted in her perpetrator’s dismissal, due in part to the supporting testimony of a bystander, graduate student Adam Lewis. One wonders why Lewis did not intervene at the time, but as he shares his epiphanies and takes gentle correction from his colleague, we see how true allies are formed.

What a ponderous thing it is to hold an esteemed scientist accountable for unprofessional behavior; so much has to align to achieve any semblance of justice. For every story, there are thousands left untold; academia is haunted by those who cannot come forward, those who are not believed, and those who are dismissed as ill-suited for the discipline.

In chemist Raychelle Burks’s story, we encounter the toll of day-to-day slights, underestimations, and the simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility that women of color experience in the academy. As Burks recounts how a colleague challenged her right to park in the faculty lot, we see how such experiences can accrue over one’s career, taking time and energy away from science. Psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Corinne Moss-Racusin reveal how our implicit biases prevent us from associating women with excellence in science, generating inequity that slips by unnoticed unless we are vigilant.

Picture a Scientist is a world-class documentary from an experienced, award-winning crew that tells harrowing truths without sugarcoating, sensationalizing, or objectifying the film’s subjects. If I must have a quibble, it is that the film’s treatment of race is limited to black and white and its treatment of gender is too binary. Other axes of difference, such as disability, class, or sexual orientation, go largely unaddressed. Still, the film leaves openings to discuss these omissions and, more importantly, compels us to action. We might ask ourselves: What data could we gather on our own campuses? How do we become the accomplices of change-seeking colleagues? Can we muster the courage to share our own stories or hold someone accountable rather than looking the other way?

Picture a Scientist will be available to stream via select U.S. theaters from 12 to 26 June 2020. Invite campus leaders to attend the virtual premiere, and then host a screening and organizing session (2). This film could be the vehicle that moves us, as Clancy advocates, “away from a culture of compliance and towards a culture of change.”

References and Notes:
1. A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT (1999)

About the author

The reviewer is the Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.