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Picture A Scientist
by Karen Pecota

Filmmakers Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck take on the topic of sexual harassment in the world of the sciences with regard to women in the work place in their latest documentary Picture A Scientist. Cheney and Shattuck showcase highly educated and accomplished women in the sciences nation-wide. Most, if not all, have Ph.D. credentials in their field of study and each have experienced sexual harassment in the work place.

Cheney and Shattuck dialogue with a geologist, a chemist, and a retired biologist to document their stories of struggle within their laboratory doors. They explain, "Picture A Scientist illuminates this uncomfortable truth while also advocating for change."

Scientist Biologist, Nancy Hopkins, Ph.D. taught at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The institute is a land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant university) for thirty years until her retirement in 2017. Hopkins describes how the system within the field of sciences in the U.S. has had a clear playbook designed for men for decades but the path for women to advance has not been so fortunate. 

Nancy shares an experience of taking her 3-year-old daughter to the lab one day. While watching her mom tend to a few things in the lab the daughter says, "Mommy, you really are a Scientist. I want to be one too one day." The daughters’ words triggered tears of joy and then a fear overwhelmed her as she thought about how her daughter would be treated with the same injustice as she was treated if things did not change.

Since this encounter Nancy has made it her goal to support women in the science workplace in order to make the enterprise welcoming to women.

Biological Anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, Ph.D. says, "Generally, the typical come on of sexual harassment are the rarest forms. It mostly comes by put-downs, or the subtle exclusions, or being left off an email, or not being invited to collaborate, etc. It's those little moments to make the woman feel like she doesn't belong."

Hopkins and MIT colleague Mary-Lou Pardue, Ph.D., weave together the narrative for the filmmakers by telling their story and then sharing the research they have done that will pave the way for change for those women who will follow in their footsteps.

When Nancy had had enough of the inequality treatment and felt she could do something about it, she sent a letter to all of her female colleagues at MIT to inquire if they had experienced things she had experienced in the workplace. Mary was the first to respond. She agreed that she was fed up too and was ready to do something about it. Mary was Nancy's first supporter. Together they went around and talked with other tenured women in the School of Science and found the same story.

At mid-life and tenured these women had to decide to fight for their careers as scientists and for those coming behind them. Their collaborative efforts involved a five-year study by MIT’s female faculty members fed up with the inequality and harassment in the workplace called "A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT." Remarkable steps forward came from the results including the endorsement of MIT president at the time. The MIT report led nine research universities to form an ongoing collaboration to address issues of gender equality. Daycare centers were constructed and the number of tenured women faculty doubled.

Scientist, Jane Willenbring, Ph.D., is an associate professor and geologist at Scripts Institute of Oceanography that is a part of U.C. San Diego. Jane works on research in California on how fast our coast cliffs retreat. In other words, she looks at how fast the sea level rise will impact the coastal zones and how that effects the environment.

Jane adds to the narrative of harassment and injustice in the workplace as she recalls an experience in 1999 while working on her master’s degree at Boston University. She was chosen to participate in a field study in the Antarctica with a small team of four scientists including a famous professor, Dave Marchant whom she highly admired and respected. He was known for his study on glacial history in Antarctica and upon a remarkable discovery there was a glacier named after him. Jane was thrilled to be chosen for the study. A dream come true to be able to work with Marchant and the National Scientist Foundation.

Once the small team broke away from the larger group, Jane had to succumb to emotional torture beyond measure. Jane was the only woman on the small team. This made her a target Marchant gravitated toward by initially calling her derogatory names. The emotional abuse only got worse. Marchant often told her she was stupid and would never become a scientist. The other two team members tried to protect her but there was only so much they could do. Jane remained a tough soldier but suffered under Marchant's thumb and his power over her with regard to her credits and educational goals. She was often frightened and had to appear at ease. All Jane wanted to do was talk science but found herself working so hard to combat discrimination in the midst of being a positive team member.

Decades later, Jane heard that Marchant was still harassing women so she could no longer keep silent. Knowing the ruthless acts of Marchant toward women and his well-connected professional status within the scientific community, Jane needed to first received her tenure before writing an official Title IX complaint. Even though it was seventeen years after the fact, the exercise in writing and then finally submitting the complaint was liberating to Jane even though she could not predict a positive outcome.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Raychello Burks, Ph.D., makes sensory rays for the systems that find dangerous chemicals used in biological weapons. Raychello grew up in the Los Angeles area. While in school she did not receive encouragement to study science nor were there female professors in chemistry during her college years where she could turn for advice.

Raychello says that women of color have been often ignored, or they are mistaken for the custodian. Her harassment came in this form: inappropriate emails, treated like a technician, not getting credit for a discovery, questioning her competence, family leave stigma, etc. Raychello calculates statistics in her work and provides telling information that the sciences continue to be a field where men and women are not created equal.

Data taken in 2016 of US citizens who hold a Ph.D. in the sciences within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields alone awarded 47.9% to white men, 25.7% to white women and 2.2% came to women of color. Raychello notes, "Fewer than 1 in 4 speakers at chemistry conferences is a woman and fewer than 1 in 25 is a woman of color." She adds, "The Nobel Laureates in Science, between 1901–2019, handed out 616 to men, 19 to women and 1 to a woman of color." The striking contrast continues to emerge but the numbers honoring women recipients steadily grows as seen with this statistic: US women in STEM wards in the year 1900 it was 0.63%, in the year 1930 it was 9.33%, in the year 1960 it was 4.75%, in the year 1990 it was 23%, and the most recent in the year 2017 at 29%.

Shattuck and Cheney present a heartbreaking narrative that requires change and gives us an understanding of how to support changes that are already underway. You will be impressed with these amazing women who are on the front lines fighting for equality and notably, have a seat at the table–with a voice.