The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club, by Eileen Pollack

Cait MacPhee on personal accounts of gender trouble in the sciences

November 19, 2015
Female scientist examining flask of liquid

As you may have heard, we have a gender gap in science. Even in subjects that typically recruit close to even proportions of women and men at undergraduate level, men predominate at the higher levels of the academy. So why do women choose to leave science? In The Only Woman in the Room, Eileen Pollack, a novelist and professor of creative writing, describes conversations with a number of women and puts forward suggestions about how to help address the gender imbalance in the sciences. Giving girls encouragement that one wouldn’t normally feel obliged to give boys isn’t “special treatment”, she argues. Instead, it’s a single measure in the attempt to level an iniquitously unbalanced playing field that is unbalanced at birth and only tilts more as we grow up.

That message occupies the final third of this book. The first two-thirds are an autobiographical account of Pollack’s school and university days, exploring the reasons why she decided not to pursue a career in physics beyond her undergraduate degree at Yale University. It is compelling reading, as we follow her account of what sounds like a long, rocky path full of emotional distress and self-doubt. I am not convinced that studying physics can be blamed for this, however, because much of her account sounds like a stubborn attempt to survive as a square peg in a round hole. Pollack’s argument is that this round hole was designed exclusively by and for men, and every woman must adjust to fit it or be pushed out. While I entirely concur, I wondered if perhaps she had actually been looking for the square hole all along, and made a detour along the way.

Where I became very uncomfortable was with Pollack’s description of some of her lecturers – male lecturers, as they all were in the early 1970s – in unashamedly romantic terms. Not romantic in the pedestal-sitting sense, moreover, but in a physical, sexual sense. Despite its honesty, I can’t help but wish this had been omitted; women have enough challenges to face when pursuing physics degrees without lecturers being given the impression that female students are likely to fall in love with them (or, indeed, cry). Her focus on dating, popularity and social capital certainly made me thankful I didn’t go through the US education system. A lot of what she describes doesn’t chime with my own experience, but perhaps that is why I ended up a professor of physics and not someone who was squeezed out.

If you accept that on average white men are not, as a population, more intelligent than women or ethnic minorities, then by drawing our talent predominantly from the pool of white men, we must be selecting less talented men over potentially groundbreaking women or people of colour. Science is the cornerstone of innovation and our advance as humans, and it deserves the most curious and the most talented to carry it forward. This is not a fairness argument, but an argument for excellence. Those who do carry it forward also deserve a working environment that doesn’t require all-consuming commitment at the expense of outside interests. Pollack’s arguments for support and encouragement rather than “survival of the fittest”, and a working environment that nurtures its creative talent, can only be good for everyone.

Cait MacPhee is professor of biological physics, University of Edinburgh.

The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club
By Eileen Pollack
Beacon Press, 272pp, £21.00
ISBN 9780807046579
Published 30 September 2015

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