Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 21, 2016

The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club

The Only Woman in the Room by Eileen Pollack is a blend of research and a often poignant account of her early interest in math and science, her work as one of the first two women to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in physics at Yale in the 1970’s, and the circumstances under which she decided to change her focus on science to literature. She values her present life writing and teaching creative writing at the University of Michigan, but her grief for what she left behind is palpable. As she describes her joy in asking questions about the nature of the universe, and an ease with mechanical things – she recounts her father’s directive to fix her own toilet -– we also feel the loss.

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The book expands upon Eileen Pollack’s important New York Times article, Why are There Still so Few Women in Science? I read this 2013 article while writing Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, a book for readers ten and up that will be published this fall. Pollack’s notes about the need for girls to have role models, and particularly to see how women managed to balance careers with other aspects of life, were affirming. If you lack time to read this great article at the moment, you might at least check out the stunning photo of a 1927 physics conference where Marie Curie is the only woman in attendance.

While Eileen Pollack often felt alone or at least in the minority as a female in science classes, she uncovers research that highlights how she was one of many who showed an interest and strength in science, but left their fields. Often this was less about talent – she meets plenty of men who don’t let poor grades stop them – but because they felt discouraged or dismissed. As a writer, mentors praise her, but not in science classes, where she performs equally well. Some men dismiss the wanting of validation as a weakness. But why should a need for one’s successes to be seen be called that? What’s wrong with wanting to feel good about your work and part of a community?

She describes how boys tend to be raised to be more confident, while girls are expected to be modest, which can tend to make them see themselves as less intelligent than their classmates when they’re not. Even one person who believes in you can make a difference. Again, I found this with my research on Maria Sibylla Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell for Finding Wonders: all had fathers who encouraged and were proud of their daughters’ success.

In the 1800s, astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote: “science needs women.” Eileen Pollack demonstrates how this is still the case, and notes how a woman’s presence in a laboratory can shift values so that not only women but men feel it’s all right to stay home with a sick child or take off an afternoon to attend a child’s recital, game or event. When Marie Curie ran her Radium Institute, she insisted on breaks for exercise and fresh air.

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This book’s core is Eileen Pollack’s own story, which she narrates in fascinating detail. She’s honest about events and her responses, which are sometimes sad, but she cites hope for change and brings in humor, with chapters titled, “Science Unfair,” “Freshman Disorientation,” and “The Women Who Don’t Give a Crap.” She includes research and interviews former teachers and classmates as well as those studying and teaching now. There are some differences, but not enough. When she goes to Yale to speak about women’s role in science, the then chair of the Department of Physics expects only a few students to attend her talk, as certainly struggles from decades back are less relevant today. But the hall fills, and Meg Urry clears her full calendar to discuss the issues further. Women in science still struggle with issues different from those facing men. Reading this book is a step forward.

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Responses

  1. I need to read this book. And then I may need to get it for my mother, who was one of the first women at UC Davis Vet School, and who, yes, had a father (and mother!) who totally supported her goals. And married a man who thought ultimate happiness was the fact that his wife WANTED to work with him every day at their co-owned business. But I know her own self-confidence and grit were needed to counter a lot of cr*p from other people.

    • What a story, Becky — thank you. I felt as I did reading much of this book, with it’s tales of triumphs, but often that shadow: it shouldn’t have had to be that hard. It is wonderful to have two parents and a spouse on your side. But sad that others could find ways to get in your brave mother’s way.

  2. This is a topic near and dear to me. I wrote an essay awhile back which I will forward to you, Jeannine. It ties the lack of women in science and engineering to the beauty vs. brains false dichotomy, and how it relates to our culture of blonde jokes and other symptoms of attitudes towards women and intelligence.
    When I taught Science Methods to education students at UMass and asked all of them to draw a picture of a scientist on the first day of our class, they all drew white men.. and many had glasses and rather deranged expressions. There is much to do to change attitudes. It’s improving, but we have miles to go!

    • Oh, thanks, Laurie, I’d love to see your essay. I didn’t know you taught that course at UMass. Interesting even there that those kind of pictures were in college students minds. Yes, miles to go!

  3. Validation is important–if you are surrounded by negativity, it’s hard to keep on keeping on. I am proud to say that my mother and her sister both received their degrees from Wellesley College in scientific fields (my mom in Botany, my aunt in Biology). My Aunt Helen was also the first woman to receive a PhD from MIT in Biology. My mom worked for several years in Boston hospitals as a lab technician and did the same in the Wellesley College Botany department. My aunt became that feared but respected high school biology teacher. My brother now works at MIT in aerospace, helping to build a telescope that will go far into the galaxy. My mother and my aunt passed down important legacies.

  4. You have much to be proud of in your family. So does Wellesley College — and MIT these days, with women much more a part. Eileen Pollack has a lot to say for women’s colleges in this book — for that kind of affirmation they find there and its resulting confidence. She cites the roots of many successful women scientists who got their undergraduate degrees in women’s colleges.

  5. I’m a scientist in my day job. When I first started, women were vastly outnumbered, but that has changed radically in a relatively short time, especially in my field–environmental science. I’m rarely the only woman in the room anymore. Right now I have a female boss, and the scientists in my immediate work group are mostly female (4 women, 2 men).

    A geologist friend of mine recently found an old pamphlet from back when we were students, encouraging young people to become geologists. The pictures were all of white men, and that’s who the text was aimed at. We had a good laugh over it, because the reality is so different now.

    But women are still underrepresented in the upper layers of management. And I know that in other fields of science, the situation may be different from my field.

    • That is very great that you can see such changes over your career. There definitely are changes, but it also seems that in some places where women are in charge — such as Marie Curie in her radium lab, or apparently at the Jet Propulsion Center (there’s a new book about that I want to read) — it becomes a better place for women and more thrive and stay. So, onward, but I’m glad to hear of your experience.


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