Picture a Scientist: Reflections from an MIT alumna

By: Sherry Zhou

Picture a Scientist is a documentary released in October 2020. It narrates the journey of three women along their paths to becoming successful and renowned women scientists. From sexual harassment to constant snubbing, women scientists have faced significant challenges in forging careers in science. In fact, a large majority of potential women scientists drop out at various stages of the journey, unable to tolerate sexism any longer. Picture a Scientist also tells the story of the rising movement to increase diversity and equity in science and digs deeper into how sexism became so entrenched in our minds.

Women Nobel Laureates in science are significantly outnumbered by their men counterparts. If you walked into a scientific research lab a few decades ago, you would typically find that most, if not all, of the scientists and trainees working there were men. It is clear that women have been historically underrepresented in science. This historic invisibility of most women scientists placed them into a disadvantaged position. Moreover, social expectations of women being polite and deferent to men prevented them from speaking up. As trainees, aspiring women scientists had even less clout due to the strong power imbalance that exists in the student-faculty dynamic, exacerbated when the student was a woman and the faculty a man. Even today, the makers of Picture a Scientist highlighted that 50% of women faculty and staff in academia experience gender-based harassment. Most of the harassment these women experience are insidious remarks or behaviors by their male colleagues. The documentary’s narrators described the worst harassments (unwanted sexual attention, etc.) as only the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of the discrimination and harassment as the huge invisible portion of the iceberg. To hear this was jarring. While I understood that sexist comments and behaviors from male peers and colleagues were commonplace, I had always brushed those off as a part of being an aspiring women scientist in a field dominated by men. But the possibility that these comments and behaviors combined may have an equal or more devastating impact than a single occurrence of the worst harassments startled me; have they impacted me without my conscious knowledge?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a scientist. My favorite role model was Alexander Graham Bell. Most if not all of my role models and mentors were white men. Perhaps there was one woman scientist who I admired as a child, and that was Jane Goodall. I am still not quite sure whether my dearth of diverse role models was a result of how successful scientists were portrayed (almost exclusively as white men) or the actual lack of diverse and women scientist role models growing up. I also noticed as a child that the deeper I dove into nonfiction and the more I excelled in STEM courses, the more I became isolated from my peers at the all-girls school I attended until seventh grade. It was not until my junior year at MIT that I finally identified women scientist role models who I admired and aspired to be. Though I am now more immersed in the scientific community, I still would be hard pressed to identify women physician-scientists on a career trajectory that I would like to pursue.

As an alumna of MIT who graduated less than a year ago, I was surprised that MIT would be such a large portion of Picture a Scientist, and that there was a committee of women scientists who drafted a report nicknamed “The MIT Report” on gender inequities and bias faced by women faculty in the School of Science. While the situation for women faculty in the School of Science has improved significantly, I recall conversations my friends and I had with women faculty in the Biology department. They mentioned all the many improvements MIT has made to increase equity for women faculty (such as the establishment of a daycare for children of faculty). Yet even so, the School of Science is still dominated by white men. Changes need to continue.

One particular stigma women scientists might experience jumped out to me the moment it was mentioned in the documentary, and this was the family leave stigma. While there is increasing acceptance for maternity leave and extending benefits and durations, in many workplaces and careers women find it challenging to take the maternity leave they may need to take care of themselves and their newborns. I recall reading through a book about questions interviewees are asked during medical school interviews. It stated that many interviewers still exclusively ask women interviewees about what their plans for family are, and how it will fit into their journey in medicine. The question highlights that women will be more burdened by their pregnancy, delivery, and care for their children than men, which evokes a traditional sexist view that women should be responsible for taking care of the family and not have a career outside of the house. As more women are entering the workforce and developing careers, there should be more of a push to support measures such as paternity leave so that both men and women can have time to tend to their families. The expectation should no longer be that the mother, who typically will be physically nurturing the baby from pregnancy through breastfeeding, is mostly responsible for child rearing.

The depth to which gender bias and sexism is imbedded into our culture, society, and individual beliefs is astounding. What is even more eye-opening is the amount of unconscious bias that lives in all of us. A poignant quote from Picture a Scientist is that “we are all part of the problem, because unconscious bias lives in all of us.” To become more aware of unconscious bias, we can take Implicit Association Test, or IAT, to assess the strength of our associations between two ideas and concepts. Though explicit bias can contribute to the results of the test and results may not be indicative of individual biases unless the scores are fairly polarized, the process of taking the tests helps us think about the issues of sexism and gender bias, as well as other social issues (racism, etc.) in various tests. (Find out more on the website here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html).

Biologist Dr. Nancy Hopkins, chemist Dr. Raychelle Burkes, and geologist Dr. Jane Willenbring share with us portions of their incredible journeys as they navigated the frequently sexist settings of expeditions and laboratories, endured countless instances of harassment based on their identities, and ultimately succeeded in becoming the powerful and inspiring women scientists they are today. Picture a Scientist intricately weaves these stories together with expertise and commentary from many colleagues, women scientists, and others who together show us the importance of recognizing the systemic and societal discrimination of women, especially women of color, in academia. This documentary may be triggering for women who have experienced harassment, but I would encourage everyone to consider watching Picture a Scientist regardless of gender, identity, or interest in science. In Picture a Scientist, Dr. Burkes states insightfully that “science is subject to all of our brilliance, and all of our bias.” We must be aware of systemic issues such as sexism and racism, acknowledge our own biases that include those we have absorbed from our upbringing and society, and work to reduce the impact of our biases on our interactions with others. In doing so, we can tackle these systemic problems together.

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