TFF ’20: PICTURE A SCIENTIST A Hard Look At Sexism In Sciences

Picture A Scientist

Although the Tribeca Film Festival has been indefinitely postponed, several films that were scheduled to screen at the event have been made available to critics for screening.

Do as the title of this documentary asks, and picture a scientist.

In your mind’s eye you see someone who is dispassionate, judging things strictly on data and logic, not ignorance or emotion or any other implicit bias. And I bet that someone you pictured wearing that scientist’s white lab coat was most likely a Caucasian male. And that is the irony and the problem.

Picture A Scientist is a hard look at the racial and gender biases that are still an issue with the science community and how that affects women and persons of color trying to make their living in their chosen fields. The film tracks three women scientists and the sexism and racism that they have and continue to deal with through the course of their career.

Molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins is one of the leading female scientists of the twentieth century. She started her career working for Francis Crick, one half of Watson and Crick, the discoverers of the helix structure of DNA. Unfortunately, even though he encouraged her work, that also meant having to fend off at least one unwanted advance from Crick himself. Years later, while teaching at MIT, she began to suspect that lab space for her male colleagues was larger than those accorded to her female ones. After surreptitiously measuring the floor space of her male scientists’ facilities, she confronted the school administration. Eventually she go on to make a landmark 1999 study on gender bias in MIT’s school of science that would start the process of self-reflection among universities across the country.

Jane Willenbring is a geologist who was subjected to a torrent of abuse from her PhD adviser while doing fieldwork in Antarctica years. Her story illustrates how quickly masks of propriety can slip off of those in posiions of power.

As a black woman, analytic chemist Raychelle Burks has found herself always subjected to judgements based on her looks rather than her accomplishments. Once mistaken as a janitor while sitting and working in her own office, Burks has spoken at a number of conferences about the lack of black women in the sciences and how that has impacted those few who are working in laboratories and universities. She also speaks at scientific conferences not just on her chosen field but on how growing diversity can only positively impact all avenues of scientific inquiry.

Picture A Scientist directors Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney do an admirable job interweaving the three women’s tales. The film does present its fair share on information outside of the three personal stories. Perhaps appropriately, it does so via animation that recalls text books and lecture hall white board scribblings.

When women receive half of the bachelor’s degrees in science and technical fields awarded in the United States, but only make up only 29% of people employed in those fields, there is a problem. Picture A Scientist demonstrates the implicit bias towards men that pervades the sciences by simply asking scientists to evaluate identical resumes but with differing male and female names. Their reactions based on the name at top of the page is illustration enough.

But the effects of that bias go further. Women scientists have often reported that they have been subject to numerous microaggressions from exclusionary acts as being left off of group emails to having their contributions minimized to questioning their competence to more outright unprofessionalism like vulgar name calling. And through it all, they had to deal with the double standard of staying civil, while dealing with incivility. As Hopkins notes, “We didn’t want to be seen as trouble makers.”

Hopkins also points out another deleterious effect that fighting for their proper place has had. Towards the end of the documentary, she notes the hundreds of hours she spent speaking out against sexism in the sciences and wonders what advances have not been made and what has gone undiscovered because of that time that was not spent in the lab.

Picture A Scientist lays out the issues and problems in a simple, yet compelling way. If there is an easy solution, the film doesn’t offer it. And perhaps there isn’t one. As history has shown, overcoming such biases can often be a long, sometimes generational, process. But being aware that they exist is the first step, and perhaps this film will be one of the standard bearers leading the way to positive change.

Picture A Scientist

About Rich Drees 6833 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture.
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