CW: This article mentions sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination.
Faced with an ongoing global pandemic, the looming threat of climate change, and an emerging social reckoning about healthcare inequalities, the world has possibly never needed its scientists more than it does now. Despite this necessity, women and nonbinary people in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics face unique uphill battles.
According to a 2018 report from the National Science Foundation, women make up only about 28 percent of the country’s science and engineering workforce. Social stereotypes, inadequate childcare, and a lack of educational resources accommodating female students create obstacles for women to enter and continue their path within the STEM workforce.
This year, the Athena Film Festival’s “Making It Happen: Women in STEM Shorts Program” illustrates the ways in which women and nonbinary people in STEM have been impacted by the ongoing pandemic, climate change, and gender discrimination within the workplace, as well as their responses to these challenges.
“In this program area, we tell the stories of fierce and fearless women leaders working in STEM,” Kory Louko, post-baccalaureate fellow for the Athena Film Festival, said in a Q&A with the participating directors. “We’ll see the discoveries they make, the challenges they face, and when they uncover the truth about the world and break down social barriers in the process.”
“Don’t Worry,” directed by Mana Pakseresht
A young Iranian girl is stuck home alone, and her expression reads distraught and lonely. She ignores her mother’s note on her mirror reminding her to wash her hands, lacks the motivation to do work, and overall seems unenthused by her environment. But a surprise awaits her.
In this brief three-minute short film, director Mana Pakseresht highlights the experiences of many young children whose mothers, being essential workers, have had to leave them at home to help COVID-19 patients.
In one scene, the young girl turns on the television after finding a note from her mother that says to check the news. Suddenly, her face lights up. Her mother, in full personal protective equipment, wishes her a happy birthday. The young girl’s eyes fill with tears of joy and pride, inspired by her mother’s thoughtfulness and selflessness.
The film concludes with the young girl rushing to the sink to wash her hands, spurred by her mother’s resilience. It is a small act compared to her mother’s work in the hospital, but it is symbolic of protecting those most at risk to the virus and those who work hard to help patients battle COVID-19.
“Fine Particles” (“Particules Fines”), directed by Anne-Claire Jaulin
In French director Anne-Claire Jaulin’s film “Fine Particles,” a young French doctor named Delphine grapples with balancing her job and developing a relationship with her daughter, Louise. Her dedication is represented in her constant search for new caretakers, to whom she must explain her daughter’s unique asthmatic condition that forces her to stay indoors when pollution peaks are high.
“For me, the important thing was to talk about kind of a toxic relationship between a mother and a daughter,” Jaulin said in a Q&A for the Athena Film Festival. “What she’s good at in her job, she can’t really do it with her kid. … [The pollution in the environment] was like a great metaphor to kind of what’s going on in the air between two people … because sometimes there is love for sure, but sometimes love is polluted.”
Within the film, Delphine struggles with several aspects of her relationship with Louise—every morning, she sets up Louise’s nebulizer, but she comes home hours late after prioritizing work. One day, she checks her phone after emerging from the operating room, noticing several missed calls from Louise. Delphine rushes home only to find that, in an act of rebellion, Louise has gone outside and subsequently had an asthma attack.
After seeking medical attention, Louise’s mother spends time with her before bed, massaging her chest as advised by the doctor. She is stunned when Louise suddenly asks, “Can I die in my sleep?” The gravity of her daughter’s question makes her doubt how well she knows Louise, and she swears to be more present with her. When she notices Louise looking longingly at a park from the balcony window, she takes her without hesitation. This decision signals a transformation in Delphine, who has discovered a healthy balance between her rigorous profession and her time with her daughter.
“The Scientists vs. Dartmouth,” directed by Sharon Shattuck
At first glance, the impressive drone shots of Dartmouth College reveal a tranquil campus, with red brick buildings and expansive grounds for students to roam; this is the very image that Vassiki Chauhan, an M.S.-Ph.D. candidate for cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth, idolized when she first came to campus. Chauhan describes her experience moving from India to pursue her degree at Dartmouth, where—at first—the possibilities seemed endless. However, for Chauhan, this idealized world changed for the worse.
“It doesn’t feel very much like that anymore,” Chauhan, also one of many plaintiffs in a lawsuit against certain Dartmouth professors for sexual abuse, said in the film.
“The Scientists vs. Dartmouth” is a short film documentary directed by Sharon Shattuck that describes several female science students at Dartmouth and their lawsuit against three prominent professors for sexual abuse. At the start of the film, the women recount what brought them to Dartmouth, listing lifelong interests in physics and cognitive behavior, alongside their dreams of becoming neuroscientists and psychologists. But those dreams soon became distorted.
Professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley, and Paul Whalen were identified as predators who sexually abused these young women. These men had the power to connect the students to future career opportunities, and they used this power to coerce the women into a party culture: one dominated by alcohol and sex.
As one of the students in the film bluntly put it: “Either you go to the bar with him and he’ll read your papers, or you don’t and you are neglected.”
In a Q&A with the festival organizers, film director Shattuck discussed her own background as a young STEM major in forest ecology, describing her ability to relate with the vulnerability these young women felt in their respective programs.
“I never experienced the kinds of harassment or discrimination that the subjects of the ‘Dartmouth’ film did, but I do know that feeling where you’re young, you’re vulnerable, you’re trying to navigate your career, and you don’t want to rock the boat,” Shattuck said.
When an internal investigation led by Dartmouth was about to be finalized, each of the professors either resigned or retired, preventing the college from officially firing them. So, the women decided to sue the college itself. Initially, many of the female scientists wanted to remain anonymous.
“I was worried about not being seen as a scientist, [but instead] being seen as a victim,” Chauhan said in the film.
But many soon realized the effect that revealing their identities could have, and in turn, the plaintiffs and over 70 other classmates reached a $14 million settlement in 2019. The plaintiffs now oversee Dartmouth’s efforts to hire diverse faculty and staff, as well as support a non-profit working to end gender-based violence with a $1.5 million investment under the settlement.
“I guess what’s interesting about scientists in particular is that there is this sort of thing where everybody says that ‘science is unbiased,’ like it’s just this pure pursuit,” Shattuck said. “But when you really dig in, you realize that’s not true at all.”
“The Missfits,” directed by Ellie Wen
A group of young girls sits in a classroom, eagerly awaiting a group of high school girls that will soon teach them to master robotics. Their eyes are wide with anticipation and curiosity, their fingers fumbling out of excitement. These older students sport lavender shirts that read “The Missfits” in bold, black letters.
This documentary short film, directed by Ellie Wen for her Stanford Master of Fine Arts thesis film project, follows the team in a series of interviews throughout their competition season.
“I had been always looking for a way to make a film about women in STEM but struggled to find the best visual story to tell,” Wen said in an interview. “And so when I learned about this all-girls robotics community team in San Francisco, the Missfits, I got super excited about them.”
In one scene, Ryann, the team vice-captain and a Black woman, discusses the assumptions people make about her merits and genuine skill, given the use of affirmative action at many universities.
“They think that life is easier because of [my identity], but actually it’s harder because I have to deal with people like them coming up to me and saying that,” Ryann said. “Or yes, we live in the bubble of San Francisco, but I’m not supposed to apply to colleges below the Mason-Dixon line because my parents don’t want me to.”
The film follows many aspects of the girls’ journey in engineering a robot for their competition, from constructing the mechanics to wiring the robot to testing its mobility. Despite an initial challenge at the beginning of Competition Day, the Missfits won the competition, taking home a prestigious trophy to bear witness to their valiant efforts.
“I think partially, [the film] was inspired by the fact that throughout high school, I loved science and engineering and math and all of that, but for some reason, I never thought of joining a robotics team or pursuing that as a career or a major,” Wen said in the Q&A. “So I think, if somebody watches this and sees the girls doing robotics, having so much fun, and decides they want to do it too, then that would be the greatest gift.”
Noah Sheidlower contributed reporting.