NOVA EXPLORES GENDER AND RACIAL BIASES, AND THE PROFESSIONAL CHALLENGES WOMEN FACE IN STEM FIELDS
NOVA “PICTURE A SCIENTIST” and “SEARCH ENGINE BREAKDOWN”
A One-Night Two-Hour Special, Including a 90-Minute Feature Film and Documentary Short, Premieres Wednesday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS
Boston, MA (March 25, 2021)—On Wednesday, April 14, the award-winning PBS science series NOVA, a production of GBH Boston, will debut PICTURE A SCIENTIST, a feature film that takes an investigative approach to examine systemic gender and racial biases in the field of science, through personal stories and hard data. PICTURE A SCIENTIST will also be available for streaming online at pbs.org/nova and via the PBS video app.
Science has provided humanity with invaluable technologies, lifesaving medicines, and awe-inspiring discoveries. But there is also a dark reality that many women, particularly those of color, have experienced throughout their professional careers: gender and racial discrimination that has persisted for generations. Women make up less than a third of STEM professionals in the United States, and numbers are much lower for women of color, but there is a growing group of researchers who are speaking out about their experiences in order to change the culture and create more opportunities and equity for women pursuing careers in science.
“This is a film about the troubling workplace culture many women have experienced in scientific institutions and the damage this causes, not only to individual women, but to science as a whole,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “We are thrilled to be able to offer audiences such an intimate window into the challenges and revelations of each of these stories, and we hope they’ll lead us all to imagine a better future for the culture of science.”
The film explores these broader institutional issues through the personal stories of three women who have been subject to gender bias in their careers, ranging from years of subtle slights to outright harassment. Viewers first meet Jane Willenbring, Ph.D., a geomorphologist whose once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do field work in Antarctica becomes one of the darkest moments in her life. Then, Nancy Hopkins, Ph.D., amolecular biologist, shares the many instances of bias that held her back throughout her career, which ultimately led her and several female colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to form a committee to investigate inequalities at the institution. Finally, Raychelle Burks, Ph.D., an analytical chemist, who has had to endure consistent, subtle slights, such as being mistaken for a custodian and being ignored in meetings, shares her perspective on the many challenges she has faced as an African American woman in the field.
The film also goes beyond laying out specific instances of harassment and takes viewers through perspectives and studies from social scientists, neuroscientists, and psychologists to explain the gender bias phenomenon and why it continues to be so prevalent today. The film shows a social experiment that asked participants within the scientific community to evaluate resumes of two fictional scientists whose profiles differed only in gender. The female student was rated as inferior to the male student on every professional dimension that they assessed.
As biases continue to exist, technology actually is enabling new perspectives to make science itself more diverse, equitable, and open to all. The film distills examples of previous pop culture portrayals of a scientist, causing the viewer to reflect on the “Albert Einstein” profile represented over the years. Representation matters, so it’s all the more important to increase the number of underrepresented voices portrayed in science media to redefine “what a scientist looks like” for future generations.
While in recent years, many female and BIPOC scientists across fields have worked to diversify STEM, there is still an enduring trend in which many young women’s budding careers fade due to the cultural and systemic challenges that still exist today. As recounted in the story of an unidentified film participant who once wanted to become an astronaut, many young women walk away from graduate programs due to the discrimination they face from male professors combined with a lack of support from administrators. These firsthand stories combined with the scientific studies and data featured in the film illustrate that science is losing bright minds and valuable perspectives when this problem persists.
“One thing we keep coming back to is this irony that many scientists believe that science can be free of bias,” said Director Sharon Shattuck. “However, as found in the film this is not the case and these biases persist today. Our hope is to enlighten viewers on these complex systemic issues, past what only may be visible on the surface.”
“We wanted the film to illuminate all of the layers of microaggressions and to portray the spectrum of discrimination, but we also wanted it to serve a positive purpose,” said Director Ian Cheney. “The title of the film is an entreaty to ask the audience what they think, asking us all to think about our own biases.”
“For nearly five decades, NOVA has produced films documenting the field of science, and it is important that we also look at the cultural issues within that system,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt. “We hope this film will help give viewers a deeper look at the field of science as a whole and shine a light on the many different forms harassment and bias can take.”
Immediately following PICTURE A SCIENTIST, NOVA will premiere the documentary short SEARCH ENGINE BREAKDOWN, in which two preeminent Black women researchers, Safiya Noble, Ph.D. andLaTanya Sweeney, Ph.D., present compelling evidence of the need for inclusivity and equity in the fields of computer science and technology, as they uncover the damaging biases at work in the search engines we rely on every day.
Dr. Noble’s journey began when she set out to find activities to entertain her young nieces and entered the term “Black girls’’ into her search bar: pages of pornography appeared as the top results. Subsequent searches of “Latina girls” and “Asian girls” led to similarly sexualizing and racist results. Concerned about the impact of such dangerous stereotypes, Dr. Noble embarked on research that would lead to her groundbreaking book, Algorithms of Oppression. Along the way, she discovered the work of computer scientist Dr. Latanya Sweeney, who had made her own disturbing discovery.
Dr. Sweeney shares her experience of searching for her own name online during an interview with a reporter, when up popped ads for access to an arrest record. Since Dr. Sweeney had never been arrested, she began investigating discrimination in online ad delivery. Her findings astounded her: Searching a name more commonly given to Black children delivered an ad suggestive of an arrest record more than 80% of the time, while white-associated names most often delivered neutral ads.
The film breaks down how search engines operate, using algorithms to find and rank results based on a multitude of factors, including many that are influenced by human biases, as well as direct marketing. Both scientists argue for greater transparency by tech companies, so we can all see what’s actually driving the search results we see every day and easily identify those entities, whether individuals, business, or institutions, that are driving and shaping the results.
“The groundbreaking research of the two Black women scientists shines a light on how search technologies can reinforce racial stereotypes. The film highlights how critically important it is to include independent scientific research from diverse perspectives in the search engine technologies that shape the way we see the world.” says Director Shalini Kantayya, who also directed the critically-acclaimed Sundance featureCoded Bias.
“It’s easy to rely on search engine technology, which brings so many benefits. But the technology is far from perfect,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt. “Search engines reflect both the aspirations and the biases of those who craft them.”
“This film reveals what goes wrong and the real damage that can be done to people when science and technology is not fully inclusive,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “It also shows how greater representation of women and people of color within STEM research and industry has the potential to be truly transformative and lead to technology that will benefit us all equitably.”
This one-night, two-hour special is focused on inclusivity in science and the harm that can be done when science is not inclusive and equitable for all. PICTURE A SCIENTIST chronicles the efforts of a growing group of researchers who are writing a new chapter for women scientists. The film follows three women who all lead viewers on a journey deep into their own stories of harassment. These personal stories are woven in with the quantitative and qualitative evidence to shine light on reprehensible truths that have been kept in the dark for too long. SEARCH ENGINE BREAKDOWN tells the story of two researchers who share common concerns about how everyday online searches can reinforce damaging stereotypes, and explores how technology can be made more equitable.
PICTURE A SCIENTIST (90-minutes) premieres Wednesday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS, followed bySEARCH ENGINE BREAKDOWN. Both will also be available for streaming online at pbs.org/nova and via the PBS video app. Additionally, SEARCH ENGINE BREAKDOWN will be available for streaming on NOVA’s YouTube channel.
PICTURE A SCIENTIST is a NOVA Production by Uprising LLC for NOVA/GBH. Executive Producer is Amy Brand. Produced by Manette Pottle, Ian Cheney, and Sharon Shattuck. Directed by Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of GBH Boston. © 2020 Uprising LLC All Right Reserved. Additional Material © 2021 WGBH Educational Foundation.
SEARCH ENGINE BREAKDOWN is a NOVA Production by 7th Empire Media for NOVA/GBH. Written and Directed by Shalini Kantayya. Produced by Cédric Troadec. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of GBH Boston. © 2021 WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.
PICTURE A SCIENTIST Production Funding Provided by The Heising-Simons Foundation, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Sandbox Films, Satomi Okazaki and Shirish Altekar, Nancy Blachman, The New York State Council on the Arts, The Wonder Collaborative, Chicken & Egg Pictures, The Educational Foundation of America, Erica Brand and Adam Brand, Maria del Mar Hershenson, Kate Korsh, and Jennifer Kane.
Original funding for NOVA was provided by Draper, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.