Book 241: The Only Woman in the Room by Eileen Pollack


„The Only Woman in the Room. Why Science Is Still A Boys’ Club“ by Eileen Pollack

Finished reading on November 15th, 2017

Rating: 10/10

I find it difficult to focus my thoughts on this book, because it made me relive a large part of my life. At first look even I had the thought, that why should it be relevant to me? The author studied physics at Yale in 1980s, surely it can’t be the same experience in a different country, ca 30 years later?

In this book you can get a glimpse of all the small things that add up to why there aren’t more women in STEM fields. In some ways Pollack gives the impression that it’s STEM itself and science culture that keep women away, but in others you can see that it’s more of a general environment and society and even pop culture that contributes to the problem. And everyone has biases one way or another whether they’re in a STEM field or not.

I feel like a lot of things I had thought about were present in the book, and I could see my thoughts reflected in either the author’s or in one of the interviewed persons’ answers.

Do women need to be encouraged more in STEM fields? Or maybe do women in general require more encouragement? I can think back on many occasions when I was encouraged to continue on with something even though I hadn’t done particularly well on a test. And then I think how I had actively sought the encouragement on those occasions and hadn’t on others (and wasn’t encouraged then). So I feel that the answer is „yes“. But why?

At one time I was certain, that physics is the most difficult subject to study, and worth studying even for that sole reason. I still feel that way. And I also think that (possibly) everyone can learn it as long as they’re interested in it. Which leads to the question, why do so many quit STEM when they’re not getting the top grades? Maybe that’s why there aren’t as many women in STEM? If you don’t have the highest grades in science, you wouldn’t even consider studying it? Isn’t it just giving up too early? I remember one occasion when someone told me to not give up so soon. ONE occasion.

And then I remember all the times when I’ve hear someone say „I give up“, when I know that just a little more effort would get the person to the goal. How about teaching everyone not to give up?

An interesting thing that was mentioned in the books, is how many physics (and possibly other science) students feel the need to be a „well-rounded person“. One might be just interested in science, but they have to make an effort to have something to talk about with non-science majors. I feel like the whole list of „fiction books I’ve read“ on this site attests to that, because it’s unlikely that a humanities major would meet me half-way and read about astrophysics or general relativity for fun. Why is that? You can be considered a well-educated person if you’ve read James Joyce, but haven’t heard of Robert J. Oppenheimer?

It’s interesting how many times Pollack mentions falling in love with a teacher, TA etc. Someone older and smarter who shares your interest in a STEM field and appreciates a smart woman sounds like the ideal….

But then we get to all the small things – feeling isolated in a group where you’re in a minority. The general feeling of not belonging. Being the only person who’s not wearing black, gray or dark blue in a class. Abstract art that obviously is of nude women on a department’s walls (that’s from my life). Inappropriate jokes and examples by lecturers in class…

I did like the book for several reasons – I could relate to the author and the book made me realize a few things that I hadn’t seen or understood before:

The first thing was how it disturbs me whenever I hear a name of a scientist in a lecture in relation to a law or effect that the scientist discovered, and how there’s rarely ever any mention on who the scientist was. It’s fine in case of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, but otherwise it bothers me. I discovered how it bothered me because several scientists are mentioned in Pollacks books, and I liked how I could put the names together with a few facts I knew about them already or that Pollack provided. To me it makes physics more interesting to know who were behind the discoveries and definitions and it makes it easier to remember the science too 🙂

The second thing was that I feel I generated a sort of imaginary bubble around me for at least a while during my studies, where all I cared about and read about was physics, because I didn’t have any time for anything else, nor any interest either. Which seems to be an important part of studying a STEM subject.

I feel like this book should be read by everyone, not just women in STEM, who might have had the same experience. It should be read by primary school and kindergarten teachers, by anyone who in their work or life encounters children or young adults. All for the sake that the students wouldn’t be getting ideas about how some area of study is more appropriate for one gender than another one.

On a different note: this book reminded me of Wil Wheaton’s book „Just A Geek“, in a slightly odd way. In „Just A Geek“ Wheaton acknowledges his need to prove to everyone that he hadn’t made a bad or wrong decision in his youth. I felt like in some way Pollack was doing the same.

I’m still thinking about the topics discussed in the book. And I still wonder, whether maybe it’s rather a question of shouldn’t men be encouraged more to study humanities and social sciences? And with that approach you immediately hit the fact that traditionally those lead to less well paid jobs….

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