Written By: By Isabel Powell
We’ve all seen film snippets and magazine clippings of the classic ‘50s housewife, wearing a polka-dotted dress with a tightly wrapped apron, likely holding oven mitts or a tea tray. Just as often, we’ve all heard “how far we’ve come since then” muttered by people who defend modern society as entirely equitable. Sure, it’s true that we have progressed from the pearl necklaces and aprons, but few women, especially in science, would claim that suddenly women have the same opportunities and are equally esteemed and respected as their male counterparts. “Picture a Scientist,” a Tribeca Film Festival 2020 selection, is a documentary that follows three prominent female researchers and records both the adversity they face and the profound strength they demonstrate in battling such systemic sexism.
Raychelle Burks, a chemist at American University, discusses gender bias and racial discrimination in the new independent film Picture a Scientist.
Credit: Uprising LLC
The documentary’s namesake is a social science experiment conducted in 1983 by Dr. David Miller from Northwestern University. In this study, children were asked to “picture a scientist” and then draw what came to mind. Out of the 5,000 children surveyed, a mere 28 drew a female scientist; in other words, 99.44% of children associated “a scientist” with a man. Now, almost forty years later, 28% of the drawings depict female scientists, literally illustrating a dramatic yet insufficient increase in professional gender equality in the sciences.
That being said, the film and further studies highlighted a concerning observation about this experiment. At the age of six, 70% of young girls “picture a scientist” to be a woman. By the age of sixteen, approximately 75% of teenage girls “picture a scientist” as a man, which “accurately reflect[s] the proportion of women and men in various professions.” This dramatic shift is heavily influenced by the social stereotypes, expectations, and unfortunate realities that these young girls are exposed to over this formative decade of their lives. During this time, young girls face the constant suggestion that women are intellectually less capable and belong in more stereotypically “feminine” roles.
Just like the young girls surveyed in the study, the three extraordinary women depicted in the documentary encounter incredibly different battles, all with the same underlying message that they don’t belong in STEM. In the documentary “Picture a Scientist,” Dr. Raychelle Burks, an analytical chemist, and professor at American University described the emotionally-draining and compounded discrimination she had faced as a woman of color. Dr. Jane Willenbring, a geomorphologist and the Director of the Stanford Cosmogenic Isotope Laboratory, suffered severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of a prominent male scientist during a research trip to Antarctica. And Dr. Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist who studies the genetic nature of cancer in zebrafish, not only suffered overt sexual harassment from world-renowned scientist Francis Crick, but also worked to battle the more covert, underlying, systemic inequalities that female scientists face in universities, such as less funding, significantly smaller laboratories, and having fewer resources.
The filmmakers highlight the persistence and determination of these three women in not only overcoming their struggles but ensuring that these struggles are not shared by future generations of women. Whether it be Dr. Hopkins sneaking around MIT late at night to measure the floor area of each laboratory or Dr. Willenbring collecting testimony for her Title IX complaint, the documentary shows the painstaking process of righting the wrongs of gender inequality, rather than glorifying or sugarcoating their struggles. The film is careful not to paint these women as too unusually extraordinary to neither underestimate their adversity nor diminish the power of ordinary actions of resistance.
This documentary importantly highlights both the explicit and more overwhelmingly implicit nature of gender bias. In a film detailing the struggles of women in science, one might expect to hear about exceptional or unusually awful harassment or assault that has occurred. Filmmakers tend to use these sensational episodes for dramatic effect, but “Picture a Scientist” purposefully chooses to highlight the entire spectrum of gender discrimination and bias, from egregious and blatant assault to the unconscious yet significant differences in treatment and resources. Throughout the film, the narrative and anecdotes are supplemented with data-driven evidence, figures, and psychological studies. The documentary also frequently refers to the analogy of gender discrimination as an iceberg, with the visible portion (representing assault or physical harassment) making up approximately 10% of the iceberg itself, with the overwhelming majority of the iceberg being hidden below the surface. This 90% includes events that are often disguised or brushed off as insignificant but can accumulate to completely devalue a woman’s sense of self-worth and perpetuate the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority shown in the original study of teenage girls.
Although this film could not be considered light-hearted or even inspirational, it carefully balances the multifaceted and complicated nature of gender bias. It delves into psychological studies that shine a light on our implicit gender bias that struggles to associate women with science while also highlighting the overwhelmingly emotional and personal consequences of discrimination. “Picture a Scientist” is incredibly thoughtful in its brutally honest representation of the scientists’ experiences and the raw emotion it invokes. Through its depiction of these three women fighting back against implicit and explicit gender bias, “Picture a Scientist” paints a future where pearls and aprons are replaced by test tubes and microscopes.