Science courses designed “to weed out those who don’t come as prepared as they should be” need to be radically reformed so that more under-represented groups including women do not drop out of such programmes.
That is among the solutions to inspire more women into science put forward by the novelist Eileen Pollack, professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan and author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.
In the book, Professor Pollack describes how in the mid-1970s she was “one of the first two women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics at Yale”.
She herself was discouraged by stereotyping and other obstacles from pursuing a PhD, and notes that even today women still make up only a fifth of the physics PhD students in the US. It was this that spurred her to write a book about “what it felt like to be an intelligent, ambitious young woman growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, and why even today so few women and minorities go on in science”.
Quite apart from more general prejudices, Professor Pollack told Times Higher Education, scientifically inclined young women still had to face “teasing and ostracism”, “the stigma of girls [being perceived as] not being good in science and maths” and stereotypes about “nerdy women who no one is going to date or marry”. As long as such notions existed, it could never be “a fully informed and free choice” if many women decided to abandon the hard sciences for other options.
But provided that as many girls as boys go on to university, why does it matter if their choices are slightly different?
“Computer scientists and engineers are designing the future all of us are going to be living in,” Professor Pollack said. “We don’t want them to create a world which only suits straight white males.”
The Only Woman in the Room looks forward to a time when young women can learn to “appreciate the joys of designing a computer game that doesn’t involve blowing up people’s heads, in a room that isn’t populated solely by farting, burping, breast-ogling young men”.
It also celebrates a group of today’s Yale University postdocs who describe themselves as “the women who don’t give a crap” and say things like: “If you’re not going to take my science seriously because of the way I look, that’s your problem.”
Asked for more general solutions, Professor Pollack called for science courses to be more accessible and pointed to the mayor of New York’s decision that all schoolchildren must take at least some computer science classes, “so girls and minorities get a chance to see if they like it”.
She also described how Harvey Mudd College, a liberal arts college in California, has increased the proportion of women pursuing a computer science major from 10 per cent to 40 per cent over four years through “really simple changes” in how it runs its programmes.
Eileen Pollack’s The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club was recently published by Beacon Press.