Picture a Scientist shines a light on gender discrimination in science – and also finds reasons to be hopeful, says Simon Ings
1 July 2020
By Simon Ings
Picture a Scientist
Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney
Virtual screenings from 26 June
WHAT is it about the institutions of science that encourages bullying and sexism? That pushes a young geologist down an Antarctic hillside? That tells a Black chemist to straighten her hair before applying for a job? That takes vital equipment from the tiny, ill-appointed lab of a promising researcher? Picture a Scientist follows the careers of three women and pinpoints where the field has let them down.
Women disproportionately drop out of academia. In 2018, women were awarded 50 per cent of the bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering in the US, but only 36 per cent of postdocs that year were female. Small wonder, considering the experiences of the three women at the heart of this film.
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As a PhD student at Boston University on her first research trip to Antarctica, geologist Jane Willenbring was insulted, bullied and physically abused by her supervisor. In the film, she deplores a culture that benefits those who put up and shut up. PhD students are all too aware that an ill-disposed supervisor can foreclose all avenues of professional advancement. It pays them, therefore, to be tolerant of their supervisor’s “quirks” – to see no evil in them, and speak no evil of them. In this dynamic of patron and client, the opportunities for abuse are rife.
The film also features Raychelle Burks, a chemist at American University in Washington DC, and Nancy Hopkins, a geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The trio are very successful, despite their struggles. Willenbring, now at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, studies how Earth’s crust responds to climate change. Burks develops cheap, easy forensic tests for war zones and disaster relief. Hopkins studies cancer.
“Accomplished scientists have to spend so much time fighting for their right to come to work at all”
Their stories bring some measure of hope to the film: for instance, Willenbring eventually won a lawsuit against her former supervisor, who was dismissed from the university.
All three are passionate advocates for the welfare of women in science, but insist they would much rather have been allowed to do their jobs. “The time-suck is killing,” says Burks, who has been regularly mistaken for a member of the cleaning staff and challenged when using the staff car park. One is left with a profound sense of how much good science may have been lost, when accomplished scientists have to spend so much time fighting for their right to come to work at all.
Throughout her career, Hopkins’s groundbreaking work on zebrafish was disrupted by colleagues who seemed to think they needed her equipment more than she did. She also identified institutional bias. When Hopkins tried to convince MIT that female staff were being crammed into the university’s smallest laboratories, she was met with incredulity.
There was no decree stating women should be treated this way, so managers were reluctant to even consider the evidence Hopkins presented. She feared that she would gain a reputation for being “difficult”. After a five-year study, MIT and its provost Robert Brown eventually decided in 1999 to set about correcting the examples of sexual discrimination Hopkins and her colleagues had brought to light.
All this effort took time away from Hopkins’s research. “Such a waste of time and energy,” she says, “when all you wanted was to be a scientist.”
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