'If you don't have women, you've lost half of the best people': New film exposes systemic discrimination in science

The common societal assumption that scientists are men has had detrimental effects on women in science, a field in which women are extremely underrepresented, as examined in the new documentary "Picture a Scientist," co-directed by Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney.

The film, which premieres June 12, combines data with firsthand recollections of sexism and racism, asserting that time has improved the situation, but not enough. In an interview with WBUR, Ms. Shattuck said women currently account for less than a third of all scientists, with even fewer women of color. Furthermore, sexual harassment affects 50 percent of women in academia. 

Highlighted in the film is Nancy Hopkins, PhD, molecular biologist and biology professor at Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We believed so much in meritocracy. That you cannot keep merit down. False," Dr. Hopkins said after watching the film.

Dr. Hopkins said she remains frustrated that women still face difficulties that she helped name, quantify and change in "A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT, 1996-1999," according to WBUR.

The film also follows Jane Willenbring, PhD, now tenured at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego. Dr. Willenbring details her experience in 1999 as a graduate student in Antarctica, when she says former Boston University professor David Marchant, PhD, bullied her with slurs, pushed her down a steep hill multiple times and blew ash with glass shards into her eyes, as reported by WBUR. Dr. Willenbring said she felt she had to wait until she had the security of tenure before filing a Title IX complaint.  

"You get used to being underestimated," Raychelle Burks, PhD, associate professor of analytical chemistry at American University in Washington, D.C., said in the film's trailer. "You get used to being invisible." Dr. Burks also emphasized the need for allies, saying, "You can't do everything on your own."

Ms. Shattuck hopes the documentary will offer guidance for others trying to make change at their institutions. "It's really important to try to level the playing field so white men don't have all the advantages," she told WBUR. 

"If you don't have women, you've lost half of the best people," the film's trailer concludes.

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