The Only Woman in the Room
Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club
by Eileen Pollack
Pub Date 15 Sep 2015
In 2005, when Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, asked why so few women, even today, achieve tenured positions in the hard sciences, Eileen Pollack set out to find the answer. A successful fiction writer, Pollack had grown up in the 1960s and ’70s dreaming of a career as a theoretical astrophysicist. Denied the chance to take advanced courses in science and math, she nonetheless made her way to Yale. There, despite finding herself far behind the men in her classes, she went on to graduate summa cum laude, with honors, as one of the university’s first two women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics. And yet, isolated, lacking in confidence, starved for encouragement, she abandoned her ambition to become a physicist.
Years later, spurred by the suggestion that innate differences in scientific and mathematical aptitude might account for the dearth of tenured female faculty at Summer’s institution, Pollack thought back on her own experiences and wondered what, if anything, had changed in the intervening decades.
Based on six years interviewing her former teachers and classmates, as well as dozens of other women who had dropped out before completing their degrees in science or found their careers less rewarding than they had hoped, The Only Woman in the Room is a bracingly honest, no-holds-barred examination of the social, interpersonal, and institutional barriers confronting women—and minorities—in the STEM fields. This frankly personal and informed book reflects on women’s experiences in a way that simple data can’t, documenting not only the more blatant bias of another era but all the subtle disincentives women in the sciences still face.
The Only Woman in the Room shows us the struggles women in the sciences have been hesitant to admit, and provides hope for changing attitudes and behaviors in ways that could bring far more women into fields in which even today they remain seriously underrepresented.
Named one of the notable nonfiction books of 2015 by The Washington Post
Only Woman in the Room is absolutely brilliant--even a sleeping pill
and head cold couldn’t stop me from reading it through the night.
Pollack’s story reveals so much - I want to give it to my children, my
husband, my older sister (a biologist), and every physicist I know, perhaps
with key passages underlined. And especially, young women in science: read this
--Meg Urry, President of the American Astronomical Society, and former chair of the Department of Physics at Yale University
“In Eileen Pollack’s vivid
description of the issues facing women in science, I immediately saw the truth of what I have lived. Pollack is convincing in showing how the obstacles for
women in the U.S. are erected by our culture. In the 1960’s my mother had to
put up with exclusionary rules that kept her out of a career in science. You
would think things might have gotten better for my generation, and for the
current generation. But they have not. Eileen Pollack courageously and honestly
examines her own life and shows us why.”
--Carol Greider, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and Daniel Nathans Professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University
"With excruciating candor Eileen Pollack details how
society's relentless message that girls lack the intrinsic aptitude for
high-level math and physics leaves young women without the confidence to stay
the course in the brutally competitive environment of high-powered
science. This is a riveting, insider's-account of how unconscious biases make a mockery of meritocracy, why women's equality remains elusive, and why Larry Summers was so wrong."
--Nancy Hopkins, Amgen Inc. Professor of Biology (emerita), Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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