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Ever wonder why female scientists are still a minority in the U.S.? In their eye-opening documentary “Picture a Scientist,” directors Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney employ well-chosen personal histories and statistical data to investigate the issue and suggest ways to ameliorate the situation. Along with blood-boiling stories of explicit harassment, implicit gender (and racial) bias and entrenched institutional discrimination, the film also spotlights the bold and inspiring scientific luminaries who are changing the culture of science and providing new perspectives on how to make it more diverse, equitable and open to all. Currently on digital release, this 2020 Tribeca Film Festival selection should have an active ancillary life as a teaching tool.

Covering far more than the tip of the harassment iceberg, the film presents the war stories of three prominent female scientists at different points in their careers in conjunction with mind-blowing discoveries from the science of gender bias. We learn that unwanted sexual attention, coercion and assault constitute a mere 10% of the offensive behavior that women in science face. As diagrammed in a catchy animated visual, the other 90% comprises subtler exclusions such as being left off an email, not being invited to a collaboration where you are the clear expert, not given credit where credit is due, being made to feel that you don’t belong through vulgar name calling, obscene gestures or hostile remarks, being passed over for promotion and treated inequitably vis à vis distribution of laboratory space and other resources such as salaries and awards.

The smaller size of her lab compared to that of her male colleagues proved to be the straw that finally broke the back of pioneering MIT molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins in 1994. After obtaining the data (she crept around after-hours measuring and mapping all the labs), she decided to write a letter to the school’s president.  But before sending it, she discussed it with a female colleague and found that she wasn’t the only woman who felt that the quality of her professional life differed from that of her male peers.

At that time, there were only 15 tenured women faculty in the six departments of MIT’s School of Science, compared to 194 men. They formed a committee to improve the status of female faculty in the School of Science, noting that “unequal treatment of women faculty impairs their ability to perform as educators, leaders in research, and models for women students.” They wanted the committee to review space, resource distribution, salaries, and teaching assignments and guarantee that they were fair relative to those of their male colleagues. And they wanted a mechanism to initiate prompt action to correct any inequities detected.

As Hopkins reunites with some of her fellow committee members, the filmmakers stress how brave and difficult this effort was for them, having grown up in an era where it was frowned upon to complain. But their feeling of injustice and the strong desire to change things for themselves and for future generations of women propelled them forward.

The story of Scripps Institute geologist Jane Willenbring illustrates a less visible part of the working culture that some women experience. As a graduate student at Boston U., she participated in field research in Antarctica with an eminent professor. As the only woman among the four researchers, she was bewildered when he called her demeaning names, threw rocks at her when she had to urinate and once blew ash and glass shards into her eyes. At the time, she felt she had to rise above his behavior because he held her future in his hands. Her quest for justice, undertaken 17 years later from the protection of a tenured professorship, comprises a compelling but perhaps too lengthy part of the film.

Listening to Black analytic chemist Raychelle Burks, an award-winning science communicator, wryly recount how having to navigate systems rife with racial as well as gender bias constitutes a massive time suck in her schedule, brings to light another hostile element of the working culture that many don’t consider. Seeing the academic halls filled with framed portraits of white men, one can understand how even on a visual level some universities may not seem welcoming. Burks notes that “representation matters,” and she appears regularly on the Science Channel’s “Outrageous Acts of Science,” the American Chemical Society’s “Reactions” videos and Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts. As part of making change, she insists on questioning the system, asking who established so-called professional standards of appearance, and why they seem designed to keep out people who look like her.

With gender and racial bias robbing the field of potential talent, the scientific community is trying to be more conscious of implicit patterns and to create systemic structural change. Solutions include offering child care at universities, funding programs to interest girls and minorities in STEM fields, and diversifying the people who control research funding. But, as Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji points out, until universities and scientific institutions fully grapple with the social consequences of unconscious thought and feeling, it might be a while before we instinctively picture a scientist as a woman. Still, this attractive, solidly-made documentary helps lead the way.

‘Picture a Scientist’: Film Review

Reviewed online, London, June 13, 2020. (In Tribeca Film Festival.) Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Ro*Co Films release of an Uprising production with the support of Heising – Simons Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Sandbox Films, The New York State Council on the Arts, the Wonder Collaborative, Nancy Blachman. (Int'l sales: Ro*Co Films, Sausalito.) Producers: Manette Pottle, Ian Cheney, Sharon Shattuck. Executive producer: Amy Brand. Co-producers: Oluwaseun Babalola, Irene Yadao.
  • Crew: Directors: Sharon Shattuck, Ian Cheney. Camera: Emily Topper, Cheney, Duy Linh Tu, Michael James Murray, Kelly West. Editor: Natasha Bedu. Music: Martin Crane.  
  • With: Nancy Hopkins, Raychelle Burks, Jane Willenbring, Paula Johnson, Robert Brown, Marcia McNutt, Mahzarin Banaji, Kathryn Clancy, Adam Lewis.