Discussion on the movie “Picture A Scientist”

When I was first informed about the online events organized by UNIL Equal Opportunities Office for the International Women’s Rights Day, I had to choose between the two topics featured. Quickly flying over the titles, I immediately decided to attend the discussion of the film “Picture A Scientist”, as I am a Molecular Biologist by profession. (You can find the article on the other conference by clicking ‘here’.) Before watching the movie, I had noticed that my mind already made “a picture” of what this movie should be about. I was imagining the discussion of all these wonderful, strong, successful women, talking about their research and discoveries. Then, I pressed the play button… An entering scene full of hopes and naiveness, a child dream came true was suddenly lost in a nightmare of prejudices and fear. I could not see any of these bright breakthroughs, as my sight was covered by “a ton of feathers” flying in a stormy day. This would be the most tender description of the obstacles a woman in science continues to face when trying to build a successful career in academia, or just doing science.

Three members of a panel; Special guest of the discussion – Jane Willenbring, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences at the Stanford University and a featured person in a movie “Picture A Scientist”, Frédéric Herman, full Professor at UNIL, Dean of FGSE – appointed Rector of UNIL and Carine Carvalho, Head of UNIL Equal Opportunities Office, addressed the questions inspired to ask by film “Picture A Scientist” with summarized comments of guests and hosts – Marie Pasquier, Project Manager at UNIL Equal Opportunities Office and Verity Elston, Head of Careers Advice for Doctoral and Postdoctoral Researchers, UNIL Graduate Campus in the following text.

The heart of the matter is actually any kind of discrimination. This International Day of Women Rights focused on prevention of any form of harassment and discrimination that can happen at universities. No one should feel inferior or be treated differently because of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, disability, age, etc. Every member of the University, regardless of gender or function, is responsible for promoting a healthy, motivating and protective work and study environment. For example, there are many women in doubts who face frustrations in choosing, considering or preparing a road for academic research. Inclusivity is a major part of the challenges on this path. It seems that female researchers often need to carry a double workload if they want to pursue an academic career while starting a family or having some family members who need care. Family responsibilities still fall largely to women, and here we come to a bias present in our culture. This stereotype can create a significant source of tension for women with potential to develop a great academic career, as Prof. Kuheli Dutt presented on one of the workshops on diversity, equity, and inclusion showed in the movie. Additionally, there is this constant feeling of “not belonging” to the certain disciplines or “higher levels” that make women leave universities and prevent them from applying for professorships.

As the accent of “Picture A Scientist” discussion is on sexual discrimination of women in sciences, the solution for listed problems is to be fully and truly understood and supported by men, which seems not to be the case yet since more than 90% of attendees of this discussion were women. The impact of the movie should reflect on changes of this ratio and finding a way to “go beyond our own bubble” by involving those who do not see or do not want to see the existing problem. It is hard to confront something that does not create any problems particularly to you, but to someone else, and it becomes even harder when confronting people “with power” may impact your professional development. This situation was shown in a “Field work” part of the movie that Prof. Jane Willenbring experienced as a master student in the Arctic.

The iceberg figure is a powerful representation of the fact that only the most serious and rare cases of harassment tend to be visible, whereas the most ordinary and frequent forms remain hidden under the surface. Dependency relation maintains the “best harassers” to survive for decades. They purposely harass only one person or a subset of people, so the complaints of discrimination or harassment are less probable to be taken into account. It’s a strategy that is employed where people single-out particular people and make everyone bullying this person in the group as well. The main challenge is how to protect the victim and the witnesses, because of those links of dependency and imbalance in power within the University. Good step in solving this problem is to openly say whenever you are not feeling comfortable with particular acts and discuss it with the person that made you feel uncomfortable. The male master student participating to the same field work in the Arctic tried to justify his silence with: “You never showed to me you were bothered”, “You seemed not to care”, “You would laugh away and move on.” Prof. Jane Willenbring was indeed going through all kinds of psychological and physical humiliations during that field work season, and as her young colleague did not react on the obvious act of bulling by their supervisor, probably to protect himself, that is how she tried not to react to protect herself from potential consequences that confronting the “man with power” would lead to. Similar situations, unfortunately, happen to women professionally involved with “the biggest names in science.” Prof. Nancy Hopkins openly confessed her story on how far a man with such a reputation can go by allowing himself to disrespect a female scientist, for instance by touching her in an inappropriate way during working hours. That shakes the core values our system should base on, and leaves the victims alone to figure out how to deal with the uncomfortable situation. We know that path, and it leads to another level of silence and ignoring. On the contrary, it requires immediate reaction of people in charge, reactions of ethical behavior and empathy. Surprisingly or not, having a degree does not mean you learned how to treat people properly, and being smart does not make you a wise person either.

Women can be just as bad in being biased against women. It is a matter of self-development and having a particular state of mind. On the question on how to become an authentic female leader in a men’s and white people’s dominated world, Prof. Raychelle Burks explains how academia and what is perceived as a top science doesn’t really allow people to bring their true selves. It is more important to present ourselves in the generally accepted way of how a person in science should look like and behave. We tend to present ourselves as linear, “clean”, with the certain dress code and “looking smart” rather than being smart and authentic. The phrase “A ton of feathers is still a ton” is very impactful, and it is what we experience every day dealing with macroaggressions, biases and challenges to raise the awareness around these interfering factors that block our view on a successful career and block our abilities for which we have to prove ourselves maybe more than one man would do on the same position.

By organizing this discussion on the movie “Picture A Scientist”, the University of Lausanne wanted to help promote a healthy, inclusive and non-discriminatory work and study climate, resulting in each member of the University community feeling respected, encouraged to develop and mobilize their skills and to ensure success of their study, research or professional projects. To improve interpersonal relations, UNIL offers a training program on “Understanding conflicts and violations of personal rights at work.” There are also specific UNIL websites: www.unil.ch/help and www.unil.ch/egalite, available for whoever may need them.

The closing words of the movie “Picture A Scientist” by Prof. Nancy Hopkins make a perfect ending for this article: “Despite all the progress and it is tremendous progress, women still struggle over these progresses… Such a waste of time and energy, when all we want to do is to be a scientist.”

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Andrea Vucicevic
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  • Ian Cheney & Sharon Shattuck, film directors.
  • Carine Carvalho, Head of UNIL Equal Opportunities Office.
  • Marie Pasquier, Project manager, UNIL Equal Opportunities Office.
  • Verity Elston, Head of Careers Advice for Doctoral and Postdoctoral Researchers, UNIL Graduate Campus.
  • Jane Willenbring, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences, Stanford University.
  • Frédéric Herman, Full Professor at UNIL, Dean of the FGSE, appointed Rector of UNIL.