Film: Picture a Scientist – online screening

Most women breaking gender stereotypes would be proud to show their daughters their place of work. But for Jane Willenbring, hearing her daughter say that she wants to be a scientist (inspired after a visit to Willenbring’s lab) caused her to burst into tears. Willenbring was overwhelmed with fear that her daughter would be treated how she herself had been.

Picture a Scientist shows the story of three female scientists and their battles with sexism in academia. From being given smaller lab space to being pushed down a hill in Antarctica, their experiences make the lack of women in academia far less surprising.

Geologist, Jane Willenbring spent her first research trip to Antarctica putting up with bullying and physical abuse from her supervisor. As a PhD student at Boston University she dreamt of becoming an astronaut, but having been driven out of science before completing her PhD, that dream is now shattered. The power dynamic between supervisor and student creates a position for abuse to easily occur, with her supervisor even telling Willenbring he would ensure she got no funding to carry out research in Antarctica.

Raychelle Burks, a chemist at American University in Washington DC, discusses how being a woman of colour means she’s targeted in a more complex way. Despite having a faculty sticker on her car, people have questioned if she works at the University while parking, or even mistaken her for a cleaner.  Remembering how someone had told her to straighten her hair to look ‘more professional’ for an interview, Burks identifies a key problem: minorities feeling they need to fit into what it is to be a scientist. Yet after changing to fit in, you are still not ‘one of them’.

Finally, Nancy Hopkin, geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), described how she would stay late to measure her lab space compared to that of her male colleagues trying to prove she was being discriminated against. Despite being mistaken as a technician, and not getting credit for a discovery she worked on, Hopkin wasn’t able to speak out: “In that era women had to be nice” she said, or you were seen as a “nasty difficult woman.”

The hostile environment described by these three scientists shows how a large part of gender harassment in science comes from putting female co-workers down, treating them as less able and excluding them. Is it surprising to see women don’t want to work in such an  environment?

As a woman in science myself, these were difficult stories to watch and I was sometimes uncomfortable when confronting the familiar feeling of being an outsider in a male dominated field. However, these stories are also inspiring: seeing three women challenging sexism and bullying to become successful in their fields. 

Willenbring pursued, and eventually won, a lawsuit against her former supervisor. Burks shows there is no need to “chase this mythology of what a scientist is” and is proudly herself, speaking to audiences without ‘straightening her hair to look more professional’. Knowing that representation matters she shows women of colour they can be scientists.

Hopkin, along with colleagues at MIT, compared their experiences of sexism and compiled a report to show what they had to deal with. Known as the MIT Report, it gave irrefutable data that male colleagues couldn’t ignore. They measured lab spaces, showed women were paid less than men, and that a lack of childcare on central campus limited women’s options. MIT’s male president had to endorse the report, and after a daycare centre was built on campus, the number of tenured women doubled.

Hopkin not only discusses the cost to women in this film, but also the cost to science: “If you believe ability and passion in science is evenly distributed between the sexes then not having women [in science] you’re losing half the talent”. It’s shocking to think of the number of discoveries lost because women and minority groups have been excluded from science.

At the end of the film, despite the triumphs of the MIT Report, Hopkin appeared saddened and infuriated by the time she and her colleagues had to spend fighting to be on an even playing field with men: “Such a waste of time and energy,” she says, “when all you wanted was to be a scientist.”

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