Make science courses more accessible to stop women dropping out, says author

Stereotypes, prejudice and laddish behaviour still deter young women interested in physics, engineering and computer science, says Eileen Pollack

October 11, 2015
Woman holding 'Houston, we have a problem' sign
Source: Reuters
Access all areas: girls should not have to face stereotyping

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.


Print headline: Try a formula less forbidding

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Reader's comments (3)

Pollack's concern that the future's computer programmers will only be white ignores reality, starting with everything happening in India. That makes me wonder about everything else. I think there are several interpretations other than the face value one. I can't speak to the culture of Yale, but I find it very hard to believe that a single girl student in a class of men wouldn't normally be highly popular, as they were at my university. Some men might not want to marry intelligent women, but amongst the geeks who populate physics classes and faculties that attitude is, in my experience, effectively non-existent. Maybe the mistake she made was wanting to push her way into a self-absorbed and pretentious Ivy League environment she'd have been better off avoiding. Or perhaps they treated her in a way she perceived as rude simply because they weren't socially skilled. Remember, they're geeks. Or perhaps it was her. There's a rule of thumb that if you meet an arsehole one day they are the problem, but if you are always meeting arseholes every day all the time then you are the problem. Perhaps they didn't want to ask her to join their study group because they didn't feel she would or could pull her weight, or because she was hard to get along with. Perhaps they generally didn't want to have anything to do with her because she was, well, like she comes across in this article.
This comment completely misses the point, conflates personal experience with data, and reinforces all kinds of unhelpful gender and other stereotypes. The commenter is actually suggesting that Eileen Pollack is the person with the problem. What on earth could how Eileen Pollack "comes across in this article" possibly mean? If the commenter thinks this a problem, then perhaps the next book he reads should be: Bob Sutton's: The No Asshole Rule and with plenty of practical advice for him.
I'm suggesting it as one of several possible explanations. The strongest evidence for it is that something overrode the desire of young men to hang out with young women with whom they have a great deal in common, which I had thought almost universal. Is it obvious that we *should* take Pollack's explanation at face value? Isn't it possible, in principle, that she's the problem, and shouldn't we consider alternate explanations? I guess the "Yale is peculiar and backward, and had accumulated people who fled sexual equality in other institutions" explanation is more likely - they only started taking women about the time Pollack arrived and Wikipedia notes many complaints about harassment culminating in legal action. Pollack's experience was obviously very different from that of, say, my mother - enrolled by Sydney University in a physics degree in 1948, reporting no feelings of discrimination until she left the university and was paid less than my father for the same work. There must be a reason for the difference but I don't think this article helps us find it. And yes, there's a lot of personal experience here, but that's a large part of what Pollack is providing as well, and to a substantial extent what the article is about, and she seems to be drawing conclusions about the university sector in general from her experiences at Yale. As far as Sutton goes (Wikipedia) I hope I don't always qualify on criterion 1 and I certainly don't in this case on criterion 2 - Pollack surely has more power in this forum than I do.