Skip to main content

Documentary Shares Stories of Harassment Against Women in STEM

Scientist Jane Willenbring writes on a whiteboard
Jane Willenbring shares her story of harassment in science in the documentary "Picture A Scientist." | Sharon Shattuck & Ian Cheney

A recent documentary shines a light on the discrimination and harassment faced by women in science – and affords the chance to explore just how much more work remains to make the scientific enterprise equitable, said participants in a Dec. 9 virtual panel organized by AAAS on the film “Picture a Scientist.”

“We can put data down on a piece of paper and we can look at statistics and we can show you graphs over time,” said Cyndi Atherton, director of science at the Heising-Simons Foundation, which provided principal funding for “Picture a Scientist.” The film cites a report on sexual harassment in STEM released in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that estimates 50 percent of women faculty and staff in STEM have experienced sexual harassment.

“But when you have one woman tell a powerful story, it’s much more powerful,” Atherton said.

The documentary draws upon the stories of three women in science, which panelist Annabelle Lolinco, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Iowa State University and co-chair of the National Science Policy Network’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, called “humanizing and connecting.”

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist retired from MIT, relays her quest to secure an equitable amount of lab space, which grew into a comprehensive report on the status of women in science at the university in collaboration with her fellow female faculty members. Jane Willenbring, a geomorphologist, recounts the persistent harassment she faced as a graduate student in the field in Antarctica – and how she ultimately brought a formal complaint against her harasser. Raychelle Burks shares the ongoing insults she has faced as a Black woman in chemistry, slights that draw time and energy away from her research and teaching.

The film depicts discrimination against women as an iceberg, with more visible concerns like outright sexual harassment above the water and further indignities hidden below the surface. | Sharon Shattuck & Ian Cheney

Discrimination and harassment take many different forms, the film makes clear. While sexual advances and come-ons may receive the most attention, there is an entire “iceberg” of unwelcome slights hidden beneath the water’s surface that cannot be ignored, the film’s subjects note. Women of color also deal with additional challenges that white women do not face; Burks, for instance, describes in the film feeling simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible in science.

Panelist Shirley Malcom, senior adviser and director of AAAS’ SEA Change program, responded to that moment in the film. “It was heart-wrenching for me, because I have experienced the invisibility, the hyper-visibility issue my entire career,” said Malcom, noting that it was “depressing” to see young women of color still facing the same experiences nearly 50 years after the passage of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in education based on sex.

The implementation of Title IX in 1972 has pushed universities to put in place structures and guidelines that help address discrimination and harassment against women, such as anonymous reporting for women to raise issues without having to fear undue consequences, said panelist Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer at Boston University.

The impact of Title IX “is indisputably far-reaching, but it is not a panacea,” added Art Coleman, co-founder and managing partner of EducationCounsel, who also served as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education during the Clinton administration.

Panelists agreed that much more work is needed to instill systemic changes to create equity for women in science. They emphasized the importance of strong leadership at all levels of the institution and highlighted programs like AAAS’ SEA Change that encourage data-informed self-reflection at all levels of an institution to transform the culture and climate.

“That self-examination piece is so vital,” noted moderator Meredith Wadman, a reporter at Science.

Institutions must also be aware of how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities, with women being disproportionately negatively impacted by the circumstances of COVID, panelists said. Studies have shown “a pronounced drop-off” in papers submitted by female authors, Morrison said.

“Institutions are going to have to figure out how to respond to this so we don’t lose a group of women to this differential impact,” she said.

Atherton summed up her mixed emotions at the progress that has been made and the work that remains to ensure equity for women in science. The film ends by noting that the glacier in Antarctica named after Willenbring’s harasser was renamed after he was fired from his role – it was changed to a Maori name, “Matataua,” meaning “a scout before the troops.” Willenbring was the scout, Atherton said, and the glacier renaming offers closure to her story.

Yet, Atherton added, “I envision a legion behind her that has experienced something similar that is waiting for their turn.”