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The Only Woman in the Room
Cover of The Only Woman in the Room
The Only Woman in the Room
Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club
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ONE OF WASHINGTON POST'S NOTABLE NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR“Beautifully written and full of important insights,” this is a bracingly honest exploration of why there are still so few...
ONE OF WASHINGTON POST'S NOTABLE NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR“Beautifully written and full of important insights,” this is a bracingly honest exploration of why there are still so few...
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  • ONE OF WASHINGTON POST'S NOTABLE NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR

    “Beautifully written and full of important insights,” this is a bracingly honest exploration of why there are still so few women in the hard sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science (Washington Post)

    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.

Excerpts-

  • Chapter One Even in the 1970s, the sexism I experienced was rarely obvious. I grew up in a privileged, loving home with few barriers that might prevent a bright, confident young woman from succeeding in whatever field she took it in her head to enter. All this led me to suspect that the reasons for the scarcity of female physicists must be subtle, and those reasons must lie buried in the psyches of the women who loved science and math but never completed their degrees or, like me, earned their degrees but left their fields. . . . By trying to understand why I didn't become a physicist, I hoped to gain insights into why so many young women still fail to go on in science and math in the numbers their presence in high school classrooms and their scores on standardized tests
    predict.

    What I discovered shocked me. Although more young women major in physics at Yale than when I attended school there, those young women told me stories of the sexism they had encountered in junior high and high school that seemed even more troubling than what I had experienced: complaints about being belittled and teased by their classmates and teachers, worries about being perceived as unfeminine or uncool. . . . The same forces that caused me to feel isolated and unsure of myself at Yale continue to hem in young women today, acting like an invisible electrified field to discourage all but the thickest skinned from following their passion for science, a phenomenon that turns out to be less true in other countries, where women are perceived as being equally capable in science and math as men.

About the Author-

  • Eileen Pollack is the author of the novels Breaking and Entering (a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection) and Paradise, New York, as well as two collections of short fiction, an award-winning book of nonfiction, and two creative-nonfiction textbooks. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. She is a professor on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. She divides her time between Manhattan and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Reviews-

  • Kirkus

    July 1, 2015
    An unvarnished account of what it was like, in the mid-1970s, to be "one of the first two women to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in physics at Yale." Pollack (Creative Writing/Univ. of Michigan; Breaking and Entering, 2012, etc.) reveals why, after working so hard to become a physicist, she decided against enrolling in a graduate program, opting instead for a career as a writer. In part, she explains, her decision was a belated response to then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers' suggestion, in 2005, that genetic difference might explain why few women attained tenured faculty positions in hard science. Pollack first studied current statistics in order to determine how things have changed since then. To her surprise, she found out that today, women still earn only one-fifth the number of doctorates in physics. A "nerdy" aptitude for science or math, writes the author, "strikes most cruelly at adolescent girls." This was the case for her and is still true today. Being the smartest girl in the class (like the author was during her adolescence) is often a recipe for social failure. Through high school and then at Yale, Pollack faced the distressing reality that being smarter than the guys was an automatic romantic turnoff. In her case, the fact that she had attended public schools put her at further social and academic disadvantage at Yale, where most students had attended elite private schools. Moreover, she was not included in the informal study sessions held by male students. She also experienced subtle discrimination from some faculty members. Her grim determination to succeed academically meant that she spent long hours alone trying to master the difficult course work. She achieved academic success but at a terrible psychological cost, as she suffered from physical ticks, bulimia, and depression. Throughout this important book, Pollack provides compelling answers to Summers' ill-considered remarks. Hard-hitting, difficult to read, and impossible to put down.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    October 1, 2015

    Pollack was one of Yale University's first two women to earn a bachelor of science in physics. In her latest book, the author explores the reasons why she became a full-time writer rather than a physicist. Organized chronologically, this title reaches back nearly 45 years to tell Pollack's story, which echoes the experiences of many women in science who have faced isolation, stereotyping, and gender discrimination. She interviews former teachers, classmates, and professors to recount her experience in the first two thirds of the book. In the last third she talks to contemporary professors and students at Yale and affirms that women are still challenged to break into the boys' club of scientists. VERDICT While other titles detail the barriers women encounter upon entering science fields or even contemplating STEM careers, Pollack's personalizes the data while delivering an honest, readable, and brave rendering of her experience. Another strength is that the author relates well the struggles any young person endures simply deciding what they want to be.--Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    September 1, 2015
    America's efforts to increase recruitment in STEM fields might have kicked into overdrive, but representation of women in the sciences is still woefully anemic. The proliferation of tech workshops targeted specifically at girls notwithstanding, Pollack (Breaking and Entering, 2012) points out that the reasons might be more insidious than commonly imagined. In her memoir, she lays bare the severe self-doubt and low self-esteem she grappled with despite being one of the first women to graduate with a degree in physics from Yale. Worse, she argues, much of the sexism she encountered in the 1970s is pervasive even today. The end result of all that see-sawingand a lack of consistent positive feedback from her professorswas a switch from a career in theoretical physics to one in writing. Pollack is on less-sure ground when she tries to extrapolate her data sample of one to speak for many women and draw more sweeping conclusions. Yet her memoir rings authentic, its lessons essential. A bitter pill to swallow but a vital addition to the important and frustratingly ongoing discussion about gender equity.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2015, American Library Association.)

  • Kirkus Reviews "Hard-hitting, difficult to read, and impossible to put down."
  • Library Journal "Honest, readable, and brave."
  • Washington Post "Offering an engrossing look at the barriers still facing women in science...Pollack draws attention to this important and vexing problem with a personal narrative, beautifully written and full of important insights on the changes needed to make those barriers crumble...Any young woman or man on the way to college to major in science will find great lessons in this book."
  • Poornima Apte, Booklist "Her memoir rings authentic, its lessons essential. A bitter pill to swallow but a vital addition to the important and frustratingly ongoing discussion about gender equity."
  • Meg Urry, President of the American Astronomical Society, and former chair of the Department of Physics at Yale University "The 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 book!"
  • Nancy Hopkins, Amgen Inc. Professor of Biology (emerita), Massachusetts Institute of Technology "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."
  • 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 Univers "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."

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