As conversations about systemic injustice continue in the media and the fight to validate science in politics also continues to rage, you may recognize similar voices fighting for both causes. You would think that science and academia must be relatively safe from discrimination and bias, right? Actually, it couldn’t be farther from the truth, even in the most liberal of institutions. This week in our Virtual Movie Palace, you are asked to “Picture a Scientist”, but instead of the typical men in white lab coats that you’ve seen in texts books all your life, you’re given the stories of women that have faced institutionalized discrimination for their entire careers. From Directors Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck, a University of Michigan alum, PICTURE A SCIENTIST is now playing to conclude another season of Science on Screen.
Through the stories of biologist Nancy Hopkins, geologist Jane Willenbring, and chemist Raychelle Burks, the filmmakers frame this documentary with the “iceberg metaphor” that you’ve seen time and again, but in this case, it couldn’t be more appropriate. The film begins with the story of Dr. Willenbring who recounts her experience in Antarctica as a grad student with a team of geologists excavating a glacier to find traces of ash which they will be able to carbon date and study. But while on this trip, she reveals the cruel torture she received from her mentor, which included not just verbal but physical abuse. And here we are given the first example of harassment that appears on the tip of the iceberg, what receives the most attention in all its heinousness, while equally insidious methods lurk underneath. The filmmakers follow her story as she recalls filing a Title IX suit against her former mentor, while also taking us on a dive deep beneath the surface to examine other forms of discrimination that may (and often do) go unnoticed if you’re not paying attention.
The filmmakers point out that harassment also takes the form of practices such as being ignored in meetings, being left off emails, not getting credit for work, and pay discrepancies, which unfortunately go widely unnoticed in most workplaces. And then we hear the strategies of how these women must deal with these obstacles to avoid being labelled as “difficult”, or in Dr. Raychelle Burks’ case, not wanting to fall into the troupe of the “angry black woman.” When these scientists could be writing grants or working in the lab, they instead are forced to spend their energy maneuvering around these harassment obstacles. And in our current moment, when the need to fight climate change and to find a vaccine for COVID-19 are so pressing, we see how the precious time of our women scientists may be pouring down the drain to cater to older white men that still lead and dominate academic institutions.
In fact, academia is a system that is woven with a fabric that breeds discrimination and bias. As progress in the workforce is largely dependent on the relationship between the students and their mentors, with mentors being predominantly older men, you can see and understand how abuse of power can occur and deter women from succeeding. We hear one of the film’s subjects describe this structure as a “leaky pipeline,” where most of the women who enter unfortunately fall into the cracks and leave the workforce because of outdated institutional norms. While this is not a new realization and certainly not unique to academia, it is still very much a problem that must be addressed.
Currently there are many initiatives out there that focus on sparking young girls’ interest in STEM. For example, many of you may remember our Rosie Revere Engineer program as part of our Not Just For Kids Series a couple years ago. But as the film clearly points out, the problem is not that women are not interested in STEM, they are! The real problem is that women still face greater obstacles to success in STEM-related careers, and thus, drop out of the picture. The filmmakers provide data to point out this disproportionate attrition by showing us that in 2018: 50% of women studying fields of science and engineering received Bachelor’s degrees, 44% received Master’s degrees, 41% PhD, 36% post docs, and only 29% were actually employed.
And to continue providing facts and data, in a bit of meta-analysis, the filmmakers find focus in a team of social scientists that factually prove the existence of gender discrimination in the workplace and can quantify the effects of gender bias. In their study, they created resumes for two students applying for lab manager positions, one male and one female with identical qualifications, and then sent these resumes to reputable institutions across the country to receive their “candid assessments”. I’ll let the data speak for itself when you view the film, but I’ll tell you the results are startling and extremely frustrating.
As Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia points out in the end, of course this issue has seen some progress, but it’s just “too darn slow.” And like many of the problems we’re seeing today, in order to continue making progress, a first step for all of us is to listen and properly educate ourselves before we can fight it from the inside. Viewing this film is one of those such opportunities that you need to begin this process.
And don’t miss the two upcoming Q&As with the filmmakers and subjects: Wednesday, June 17 at 8:00 PM you can join a virtual Q&A on YouTube moderated by Radiolab’s Molly Webster and on Wednesday, June 24 at 7:00 PM you can join our own virtual Q&A via Zoom with Director Sharon Shattuck and Dr. Jane Willenbring. Have a great weekend and let us know what you think of the films! We hope to see you soon.