Picture a Scientist (2020)

Picture a Scientist
Director: Ian Cheney, Sharon Shattuck
Seen on: 23.6.2021

Content Note: sexualized violence, sexual harrassment

As in many other fields, women are marginalized in academia as well. Picture a Scientist shows us what that marginalization looks like, especially regarding sexual harrassment, and how it affects women in science.

As I work in gender equality at a university, Picture a Scientist is a must-see film for me. And I’d say, if you’re interested in academia/science at all, it’s also a must-see for you, though depending on how much you know about universities and gender equality, you might not learn that much that is new.

The film poster showing several scientsts at work in a black drawing on beige and light blue background.

I know that people (at least in Austria) who don’t know universities as employees, often think of them as hubs of innovation and progressiveness. The former may be true, the latter certainly isn’t. They are very hierarchical and very conservative (of course, not every faculty is the same), and structured in a way that young researchers are often dependent on one specific professor. In addition, it’s a high-pressure, highly competitive environment. In short, it’s the perfect breeding ground for (sexual) harrassment and makes it particularly hard for victims of said harrassment to speak out.

Picture a Scientist gives those structural elements faces and personal stories. We hear about idols grabbing breasts, or about a sustained mobbing campaign in the isolation of field study. We hear about the particular situation of women of color, especially Black women. And we hear about how much time and energy it costs women to navigate this minefield – time they cannot spend on their actual work.

Nancy Hopkins holding up an aquarium.

These personal testemonies – all from women in STEM (though, trust me, social sciences and humanities may have better, more equal numbers but not necessarily a better culture) – are supplemented with some statistics and facts that are nicely animated and even a couple of social scientists – the people researching this topic, usually, and so often neglected in the conversation.

The film is very well suited as an introduction into the topic, and I can see it as a great discussion starter, especially for people within academia – be it as employees or as students. Personally, I didn’t learn that much new, but then again, it is my field of work, it would be kind of worrying if an introductory documentary gave me great new insights. If you’re less familiar with the topic, I’d definitely recommend watching it, though.

Jane Willenbring working on the beach, taking a sample from the ground.

Summarizing: interesting.

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