Tribeca Film Festival 2020: PICTURE A SCIENTIST

Picture a Scientist opens to a young woman describing the first time she was “triggered”. She had always told her daughter she was a scientist, though never believed that her daughter truly understood what that meant. Bringing her to work one day, her 3-year-old daughter looked on in wonder as she began to suit up for the lab. “Mom, you really are a scientist. I want to be scientist,” the daughter exclaimed, a newfound sense of astonishment and discovery washing over her. Her mother cried at that moment. While she told her daughter it was happy tears, underneath it all, they were tears of sadness. Excited that her daughter wanted to follow in her footsteps, she was saddened by how her daughter will be treated, like she was treated – like trash.

There is such a deep impact that will quickly resonate and take hold of you. In a #MeToo era, there is a sense that there must have been more progression in recent years, that things must be better than they were. Yet, while these thoughts are based on assumptions and perceptions, Picture a Scientist delivers what science does best – it provides quantifiable data showing, that while there has been some progress for women in STEM, there is still much, much more work to do.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Picture a Scientist, from directors Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck, starts off with the most relatable, the most understood, and the most widely recognizable forms of sexual harassment. Utilizing the image of an iceberg, this is the tip, the part of the iceberg that remains above the water and can be seen by all. By looking at the past all the way to the present, we can see what once was and how it has progressed. Has the iceberg melted? Has it gotten better?

Tribeca Film Festival 2020: PICTURE A SCIENTIST
source: Tribeca Film Festival

First, we are introduced to Nancy Hopkins, Biologist, who mentions an incident of a renowned scientist coming into the lab, placing his hands over her breasts and asking what she was working on. Following her story, we meet Jane Willenbring, the woman whose story forms the film’s beginning, who discusses the abuse and sexual harassment she received from a renowned geologist on a mission in Antarctica. Each of these women opens up about the treatment they received and their means of managing  – not managing as a human being, but as a woman.

What’s hidden beneath the surface

While the unwanted sexual attention, coercion, and assaults are more recognizable, much of the film focuses on what is less in the spotlight – the portion of the iceberg below the surface. 90% of sexual harassment comes in the form of subtle exclusions, not being invited to collaborate, sabotaging equipment, remarks about bodies, obscene gestures, and vulgar name-calling – just to name a few. Honestly, the list goes on and on.

It is in this examination that Picture a Scientist truly excels. These are not women who are upset they didn’t get a promotion or had smaller labs, these are women who have been handed unnecessary and unfair hurdles they must navigate daily – hurdles that do not exist for the other sex. Broken into various parts, each avenue of sexual harassment that occurs below the surface is given not only time to be understood but is given quantifiable statistics and metrics – many even having experimental data to back it up.

Tribeca Film Festival 2020: PICTURE A SCIENTIST
source: Tribeca Film Festival

“I thought she was okay with it”

One of the most eye-opening moments in Picture a Scientist is when Jane decides to file her Title 19, 17 years after her experience in Antarctica. Lending his support, Adam Lewis, who was also on the mission at the time, writes a letter explaining what he saw happen to Jane, validating and supporting her claims. Yet, in a moment between them, Adam tells Jane that he had no idea that it had bothered her. She had been so quiet, so calm that she seemed to be okay with everything. While Jane explains that she was never fine with it, there is this understanding of a sense of decorum expected of a woman – expected behavior. We are expected to endure – even when what is happening is clearly wrong.

While this is a potent example, the film is littered throughout with men thinking it is fine and women expecting to behave a certain way – otherwise they risk their career and potential tenure. Furthermore, building on this idea of a lack of knowledge, there are also the men who claim that there is no sexual harassment of any kind in the workplace, at their schools or in their facilities – a claim that is proven wrong through the studies of the Social Sciences. Even the female researchers behind these experiments find that biases are not male specific, that they exist in all of us.

A man’s playbook

Picture a Scientist is not only focused on the sexual harassment harming the lives and careers of women in STEM, but the culture that is created. STEM is a man’s playbook, crafted and designed by men and only men know the plays. Women are left to figure it out, to navigate the unknown, many times having to do so simply because they have been left out and uninformed. Conferences are a men’s world, many asking “why are you here”. When a man asks another man at a conference for a drink, it is expected they will talk about science. Yet, when a woman does the same accepting the invite from a man only to find out they want nothing to do with science, she is greeted with “what did you expect he wanted?”

Tribeca Film Festival 2020: PICTURE A SCIENTIST
source: Tribeca Film Festival

The field of science is based very much on a dependence system, those above you required for you to move forward, creating a safe environment of abuse. And when the men are crafting the plays and calling the shots, the voices of those women on the sidelines remain unheard and unheeded.


Documentaries like this one are important in our current society. We need to constantly be reminded that there is battle raging, one that has been ingrained in us since birth. We need to remember that whatever progress we have made there is still far to go. At one point in Picture a Scientist, it is mentioned that there has been progress to encourage women towards the pipeline of science, but with the male culture and sexual harassment worsening as you climb in the ranks, holes along the pipe push many out.

Picture a Scientist is the documentary we need to continue the call for action, to continue awareness, and to remind those who would abuse a system, we see you. We are beginning to see beneath the surface and pushback even harder.

Find out more about Picture a Scientist here.

Does content like this matter to you?

Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!

Posted by Contributor