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The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is…
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The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club (edition 2016)

by Eileen Pollack (Author)

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15946134,004 (3.11)17
"Eileen 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, where, 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, Pollack revisited her reasons for walking away from the career she once had coveted. She spent six years interviewing her former teachers and classmates and dozens of other women who had dropped out before completing their degrees in science. In addition, Pollack talked to experts in the field of gender studies and reviewed the most up-to-date research that seeks to document why women and minorities underperform in STEM fields. Girls who study science and math are still belittled and teased by their male peers and teachers, even by other girls. They are led to think that any interest or achievement in science or math will diminish their popularity. They are still being steered away from advanced courses in technical fields, while deeply entrenched stereotypes lead them to see themselves as less talented than their male classmates, a condition that causes them to fulfill such expectations and perform more poorly than the boys sitting beside them. "--… (more)
Member:august8914
Title:The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club
Authors:Eileen Pollack (Author)
Info:Beacon Press (2016), Edition: Reprint, 288 pages
Collections:Your library
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The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club by Eileen Pollack

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This memoir definitely stirred up a lot of memories for me. I have a PhD in engineering, and I could fill this review up with a lot of stories of the bullshit I had to get through to get as far as I have. And even now, when I tell some of those stories, invariably the guys around me will gaslight me and tell me I must have been making it up. So it never ends. I definitely belong to the "don't give a shit" club, but that doesn't take away the sting of having to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously.

Honestly, I thought the memoir was... just okay. I couldn't tell if it was a memoir or a book about women in science and sometimes it was both and sometimes it was neither. I didn't love it. I thought it went on too long, and the anecdotes in the last chapter and epilogue were just tacked in at the end.

Maybe I am in the minority of women in STEM, but I never had crushes on my professors, or cared about how I dressed and looked, or gave a flying you-know-what about my marriageability. Do women care so much about finding a man (the book was really heterosexist and didn't even bring up the concepts of lesbians until like the very end) that they really would jeopardize their careers? I guess so, but it seems foreign to me. Maybe we need to smash the picture of women getting married and having babies as the default view of what women are supposed to do.

Finally, I thought it was strange how infrequently the word "engineer" or "engineering" came up in this book. Engineers were swept into the corner, and not really examined until the last chapter or so. I'm not sure if the author meant to include engineer in the word science, but engineers are not scientists. We go through a lot of the same bullshit as scientists, so I don't see why the need to ignore us.

That said, my issues with the book are minor compared to the topic it discusses. This is still an issue. I will teach 100s of students in my engineering classes before I get a single woman sitting in my classroom. It's exhausting teaching to a bunch of male faces. The women who do sign up for engineering don't do electrical, and maybe it's because electrical has a reputation for being the hardest, or they feel that they needed to have experience playing around with circuits as a kid (experience that I never had either). Either way, the lack of women in STEM is a big issue, one that I hope will see remediation in my lifetime.

Edited to add: several days after I wrote this review, it occurs to me that something has been nagging the back of my mind. At more than one occasion in this book, the author mentions that quantum particles can tunnel through infinite potential wells. This is distinctly untrue, as the walls of infinite wells act as nodes, and the answers are sinusoidal functions with 0's at those points. A finite well, however, has results where the wave-function actually does penetrate into the boundary. A simple Google search would have cleared up this misconception. The academic in me cannot let this go. The part of me that hates being corrected by academics thinks I should go easy on the author. ( )
  lemontwist | Sep 28, 2020 |
Some few years back, Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard, made some off-the-cuff and disparaging remarks as to why women are not better represented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. While he attempted to walk back those statements later, many people still regard the moment as a clarion call for a better encouragement and representation of women and minorities in the hard sciences. Pollack takes up the gauntlet in her “The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club.”

Pollack grew up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, in rather humble rural beginnings. Even though she had high test scores, she was regularly discouraged in her ardor for math and science. Her early education did not prepare her well for the rigors of the Yale physics department and she struggled to fit in as one of only two female physics students. Despite graduating with a BS summa cum laude, and lacking strong mentorship, Pollack ultimately succumbed to her inner doubts and sense of illegitimacy as a scientist and pursued writing instead. She went on to run the creative writing program at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Her writing ability is quite evident throughout.

The first two thirds of Pollack’s book reflects on this personal history, recounting her subjective and anecdotal efforts in a male dominated field. Some of what she recounts rang true to someone who also pursued studies and a career in a male dominated field. Of course, in such a telling, everyone’s battle is their own, so what resonates of one might be less compelling for another. If other readers find her reflections off-putting, it is worth soldiering ahead.

The latter third of the book jumps ahead some 30-40 years and from the personal to the more objective to examine where American education and industry stands now in representation and support of women in STEM. This, to me, was the far more successful portion of the book, providing solid examples, data and studies. There is much that still discourages women in the hard sciences. I wish that Pollack had been more prescriptive in how to better address these issues. Ultimately, however, it’s encouraging that progress has been made. The current crop of young women ‘who don’t give a crap’ about how they are perceived (‘if they have a problem that we are women, that’s their problem’) gives one hope for the real changes happening even now. ( )
  michigantrumpet | Jan 30, 2019 |
Personal expriences, but not a scientific study. Once again marketing and a deceptive subtitle "Why Science is Still a Boys' Club" had me intrigued. I found her via an article on this subject, responding to the scientist Tim Hunt, who commented, among other things, that women in the lab fell in love with him. With the movement to encourage young women to code, pursue STEM, etc. this seemed exactly like the book that was up my alley.
 
Alas, it is not what I thought it would be. Like others, I was under the assumption this would have a scientific study looking at the whys and hows of girls and women deciding not to pursue careers in engineering, the "hard sciences" etc. Instead, this is author's Pollack's autobiography through the lens of her career. From her experiences in school, then at Yale, plus with her looking back afterwards.
 
Although the subject is important, this is not really the book to really answer any of these questions. I found the book very difficult to muddle though. She talks about having crushes and falling in love with her instructors: I swear I was close to physically dropping the book if I had to read any more of that. She'll go on long explanations of the science behind of whatever she was looking at, which was mildly interesting, but it also derailed from her main purpose. After the book goes to Yale, I was puzzled as to what the author was trying to convey. I understood the difficulties she encountered, the attitudes she went up against, how alone she felt. But there's a lot of static that muddles her message.
 
Most people seemed to like the last section the best (where she looks at the role of girls and women now and where to go from here), but I honestly lost interest by this part. I found her very early experiences something I could relate to and actually liked the parts about her childhood best. The section on Yale is incredibly tedious and I can see why some people have called the book "whiny."
 
The topic is important to examine, but unfortunately this book is totally not the one to pick up for it. If you have a particular interest in the author, her work, etc. then it might be a good read but I wouldn't recommend it for someone who wants to examine this general problem more closely. Otherwise, I'd skip it. Apparently the author was encouraged to be a writer by some of her teachers and quite frankly I'm puzzled by what they saw or whether there was interference from an editor as the book isn't all that well-written and could have *really* benefited from further work and tightening up.
 
Library borrow. Don't rush to get it. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Feb 11, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can write a review of this book and not a lengthy rebuttal, because this is a book that caused me to shake my head frequently. I went through school just a few years before this author, and I have to say, my experiences as a science major were nothing like hers! I could go on, but…

I think the main thing to know about this book is that despite the synopsis, this is not really a study or analysis of the role of women in science and how that may have changed. This is really a memoir about the author’s experience as a science major and her explanations for her failed expectations. Ellen grew up thinking she wanted to be a scientist, but for all the wrong reasons. Though she never seems to realize this herself, her passion is not science, but is writing. Her motivation for studying science at an ‘elite’ university seems to be that it makes her feel like she is better than the ‘common’ people. Obviously she feels that writers are second class citizens compared to scientists. Her arrogance and elitism really annoyed me, particularly when she mentioned a ‘public Midwest university’ with a tone of disdain.

Another thing that was extremely annoying to me was that she assigned her difficulty with math to the prevalence of sports-related examples in math books. She seems to imply that interest in sports is gender-based, which I assume we all know is not true — at all!

If you enjoy memoirs, you may enjoy this one, but it is important to realize that this is a story of one woman’s experiences in her quest to become a scientist, and the way she has dealt with the might-have-been and if-only. The experiences should not be generalized or assumed to reflect the experiences of all, or even most, women. If you are looking for that book you need to keep looking!

I received a review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. ( )
  Time2Read2 | Mar 13, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The first half of the book is the author's own story. She got a degree in science and then didn't use it. The second half is more of what I was expecting, which is an exploration of why science is "still a boy's club".
From what I could tell, I was getting my degree in Computer Science at the same time the author was getting her degree in physics. I kind of had a hard time understanding why she kept feeling a need for more encouragement. To me, if I was getting A's that meant I was doing fine and didn't really need extra encouragement. Why did her A's in physics not tell her that she was fine? Also, the fact that she found something that was more rewarding to her is great! She is a good writer, so she found her calling.
I did use my degree: I became a software engineer and had a 30 year career that I really enjoyed. When Eileen talks about the other women that got degrees when she did and what they did with their degrees, she seems disappointed that some became engineers and worked in industry. It's like, if you didn't go into research, you wasted your degree. Again, I can't really relate to that point of view.
I took early retirement from software engineering and am now going back to school because I do want to do research (in neuroscience). I read the book because I really wanted to understand why even less women are getting STEM degrees now than when I graduated the first time.
The second half of the book tried to explore that and she spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people (mostly at universities) trying to understand it. I don't really feel like she or I learned why that is. I don't know if anyone understands it, but she made a valiant effort trying to figure it out. Since many other countries have many more women in science than we do, I guess its just culture. I don't know how we are going to change that.
Personally, I am encouraged by what I see: I am attending Washington State University and so far have encountered several women in the faculty. The chair of the Neuroscience Dept is a women, and both of my professors of chemistry and biology are women. They are all doing research as well. So I am hoping our culture is changing, if just very slowly. ( )
  ksnider | Jan 4, 2017 |
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"Eileen 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, where, 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, Pollack revisited her reasons for walking away from the career she once had coveted. She spent six years interviewing her former teachers and classmates and dozens of other women who had dropped out before completing their degrees in science. In addition, Pollack talked to experts in the field of gender studies and reviewed the most up-to-date research that seeks to document why women and minorities underperform in STEM fields. Girls who study science and math are still belittled and teased by their male peers and teachers, even by other girls. They are led to think that any interest or achievement in science or math will diminish their popularity. They are still being steered away from advanced courses in technical fields, while deeply entrenched stereotypes lead them to see themselves as less talented than their male classmates, a condition that causes them to fulfill such expectations and perform more poorly than the boys sitting beside them. "--

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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.
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