I’m guessing that the reason Eileen Pollack’s new book is called The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club is because it’s a more interesting title than The Trials and Tribulations of Eileen Pollack. So three cheers to the marketing department at Beacon Press. They certainly suckered me into reading this—oh, what should I say?—hopelessly self-involved effort to explain a major social problem.
An embryonic form of The Only Woman in the Room ran in the New York Times Magazine in 2013. In the article, Pollack presented a series of studies that showed that women are underrepresented in STEM fields in academia, from high school all the way through tenured professorships, that young women are more likely to suffer crises of confidence (especially if someone tells them that men are naturally better at math and science), and that when a male and female scientist with identical qualifications apply for the same job, the male is judged to be more capable and offered more money. Pollack returned to Yale, from which she’d graduated in 1978 as one of the first women there to get a BS in physics, and talked to female students and professors about the biases and prejudice they faced in their work and about ways to encourage more young women to continue studying math and science. The article raised some provocative questions about science and feminism and femininity: Why is it considered a given that men are better with things and women are better with people? Why is it considered unfeminine to be good at math? Why do highly intelligent girls have less confidence than mediocre boys, and what can we do about it?
Obviously I am not a woman working in math or science, but these questions still resonated with me. In college, I had a job in the campus computer lab, where I was one of the few girls and one of the even fewer English majors. One day an old man came in to get his password reset or something like that and made some reference to my being a computer science major. I corrected him and said math was never really my thing. “Someone just told you when you were little that you weren’t good at it because you’re a girl,” he told me.
I still wonder about that. It’s true I hated math when I was little because it was boring and took too long. I got so into the habit of hating it that it took me a while to realize there were certain parts I enjoyed, like geometry and matrices. But I didn’t get very far in understanding the mathier sciences like chemistry and physics. Who knows? Maybe if I had, I would’ve become a computer science major and would be making a gazillion dollars in Silicon Valley right now, or I’d be like the physics grad student I met once and envied desperately because she was planning to spend her winter break in Antarctica looking through an enormous telescope and unraveling the mysteries of the atmosphere. (Though to be fair, it was the trip to Antarctica that appealed to me, not the telescope or the mysteries of the atmosphere.) And then there’s the being a girl part. Is it unfeminist to conform to gender stereotypes and prefer language to numbers?
And then there’s the dilemma of being a woman working in a field that’s still, in many ways, a boys’ club. How do you handle deep-seated sexism when you’re the only woman in the room with dignity and grace and maybe even a sense of humor (one that doesn’t require you to sell out the sisterhood)?
I guess it’s unfair to expect a single book to answer all these questions. They are pretty complicated after all, and have been subject to debate, in various forms, for centuries or maybe even millennia: Do women have brains? Can they serve functions beyond cooking and cleaning and childcare and making men feel manly?
But the great disappointment of The Only Woman in the Room is that Pollack doesn’t even try. Or, rather, that she doesn’t go beyond what she laid out in the original article.
Instead she chooses to expand on her own personal experiences. She grew up in the Catskills in the 60s and 70s, an environment that was not especially welcoming to smart and loudmouthed girls such as herself. Through sheer force of will, she taught herself calculus and got through the AP exams and into Yale, where, for reasons that she never clearly articulates, she decided to major in physics. Most of her classmates were boys from prep schools who were far better prepared than she. When she scored a 32 on the first midterm in her introductory physics class, she was prepared to scrap the whole thing and switch to English, but her professor encouraged her to stick it out. And she did! Through incredible stress, massive insecurity, crushing loneliness, and bulimia, and with few female role models—Yale had only begun admitting women five years before Pollack started there and she had only one female science professor—she persevered. She declined to form alliances with the few other female physics students she encountered, reasoning, “If a person’s worth derives from being the only woman in a field, how much affection can she feel toward another woman who might challenge that claim to fame?” And yet she was embittered because the boys never included her in their group-study sessions.
Writing her story 35 years later, though, Pollack still cannot see beyond the perspective of a wounded (and underfed and overexhausted) undergraduate. The philosophy among her professors, she writes, was that “anyone who needs to be encouraged shouldn’t be.” Instead they emphasized how much hard work and dedication an academic career in science required. “If I didn’t want to become a theoretical physicist badly enough to put up with the crap I would have needed to put up with, whose fault was that but mine?” she writes. “And yet, if I lacked confidence, was it so wrong for me to hope that my elders might supply it? If a single professor had said, ‘You know, Eileen, you really are quite good at physics,’ I would have been quite good at physics. In fact, I would have been quite great at physics.”
Yet they encouraged her in other, nonverbal ways: they gave her As, they arranged for her to get campus jobs, they recommended her for prestigious conferences and summer internships, they agreed to take her on for independent research projects, they wrote her letters of reference for grad school, and they even took an interest in her personal well-being. It was because of a professor who was concerned that she appeared to have no interests besides physics that Pollack decided to become a writer instead of a scientist: he made a bargain with her that he would only write her a grad-school recommendation if she enrolled in a creative writing course. Near the end of the book—after a conversation with her former thesis advisor, during which he informs her that her thesis had been exceptional—she writes, “I want to shake my younger self and say: Really, Eileen? None of that was enough?“
In the last third of the book, Pollack does make a few attempts to track down some of her former professors and fellow female students to see how their memories of the Yale physics department at that time tally with hers. Her professors say they never thought she was an inferior student because she was a female—plenty of boys had also felt unprepared when they arrived at Yale. Academic careers in physics and higher mathematics were very difficult and demanding, and the professors said they didn’t readily encourage students of either gender to pursue them. One of the other female physics students says she always perceived Pollack as more serious and dedicated because she never did anything besides study. Or, as Pollack writes, with typical myopia, “I know the interview is supposed to be about Erika, but I can’t resist following up on her comment that she perceived me as being more dedicated to science than she was.”
(Something that never seems to occur to Pollack is that in the mid-1970s women were still very much a novelty at Yale. What if she’d attended a university with a longer tradition of coeducation or a women’s college? Did women in other disciplines feel similarly outnumbered and underprepared? Did she even bother to ask any of them?)
Most of the interesting material in the book—that is, the stuff about people other than Pollack—is recycled from the article. Pollack returns to Yale to lead a discussion about women in science in her old dorm; she and the (female) chair of the physics department are astonished that 80 students show up and that little seems to have changed since they were in college.
After that, Pollack writes, she talks to more female students, professors, and postdocs at Yale and at the University of Michigan, where she’s currently a professor of creative writing, and asks every woman she knows why she did or did not major in science. But she says very little about these interviews or what she learned from them. She spends a single day at her old high school, where, again, she can’t seem to help herself from filtering her observations through her own experiences there 40 years earlier. “The lesson Cindy Nolan teaches is pretty much the same lesson on acceleration Mr. Yates taught us. When the students beg Cindy to slow down, I want to warn them that their professors in college will recap this material in less time than it took the fastest student to run the twenty-meter race that provided data for their lab.” So wouldn’t it be helpful, then, for the students to understand the material while they’re still in high school and in a position to ask the teacher to slow it down?
It may be true that the personal is political, but the personal has to get beyond the individual person. There seems to be a trend in nonfiction writing at the moment that everything must be personal, even if the person writing is merely an observer, not a participant. (You can see this in the New Yorker where the writers insert gratuitous “he told me”‘s into stories in which the “me” has previously been completely invisible and irrelevant to the story.) I’m not sure why. Do 150 pages of Eileen Pollack’s experiences at Yale 35 years ago somehow make the problem of the lack of women in science more relatable to the average reader? How does the experience of one woman—who studied science but then abandoned it to do something else that she admits she found more enjoyable and satisfying—stand in for all women who study science and don’t abandon it? (“The praise recognized not only my ability to complete the assignment,” Pollack writes of her first writing class, “it commended me for who I was, in that only the person who had experienced what I had experienced could have written what I had written.” That singularity comes much, much later in the process of studying science.)
I suppose Pollack’s singular experience could have been the start of a longer conversation that includes the voices of lots of other women—and maybe even black and Hispanic men, who are also underrepresented in the sciences. But Pollack’s search for other voices is limited: it doesn’t expand much beyond her own immediate sphere until the final chapter, which is a summing up of comments from the New York Times piece. And hey! she didn’t even have to leave her computer to get them!
But it’s the holiday season, so I suppose I shouldn’t end this on a note of complete doom and despair about the inability of writers to listen to other people. So instead I will mention a group of four Yale physics postdocs Pollack encounters at a picnic who collectively refer to themselves as “the women who don’t give a crap” about what anyone thinks of them.
“Face it,” one of them tells Pollack, “grad school is a hazing for anyone, male or female. But if there are enough women in your class, you can help each other get through.” In other words, one of the reasons men persist in science is because they’ve formed that boys’ club. So why can’t women form a girls’ club to help each other instead of taking pride in being the only woman in the room?
In one short page, these women provide more insight than Pollack does in 250.