The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club by Eileen Pollack
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced review copy from the publisher via Netgalley.
The description for this book is a bit misleading. The first half is Pollack's memoir of her own experiences as a student from childhood in public school in a predominantly Jewish area through college at Yale as one of the few female physics majors. The second half of the book is more in line with what I had been expecting given the description, and includes anecdata from other women who Pollack had known or interviewed from her own generation and the later generation of female science majors and scientists, as well as recaps of interviews with her former professors and teachers who we had met in the first half of the book.
This is a deeply personal story for Pollack, but at the same time it is also deeply personal for every girl who thought she wasn't smart enough, or every woman who decided to drop out of a science major, or every student who didn't even try for a science degree in the first place. This book was deeply personal for me.
Pollack's experiences are not every woman's or minorities' experiences, but they are similar enough that many can relate. One of my criticisms of this book is Pollack's weakness in connecting women's experiences with the similar experiences of minorities and economically disadvantaged students. She does mention that several times, but it is definitely a message that can be strengthened. Towards the end of the book, Pollack noted that some students, even if they enter into college at the top of their high school graduating class, find themselves floundering and behind other students because they were not privileged enough for their schools to offer certain courses. I wish Pollack had highlighted that more because it's a problem that systemically places students from under-served, poorer schools at a disadvantage in college.
I write this review the day after a 14-year-old Muslim boy with brown skin was detained by his school and arrested for bringing in a homemade clock to show off to his science teacher, which another teacher reported as a bomb. That is an extreme case of the educational culture discouraging a minority from entering a STEM field, but it highlights the challenges that some students face by virtue of their sex or ethnicity.
Pollack's story is an important one, and both its strength and weakness is its reliance on anecdotes (what I referred to as "anecdata" earlier) from her own experiences and gleaned from interviews or missives with other women or minorities. She does mention the results of a few studies of bias against women in STEM, but the bulk of the book are anecdata rather than empirical controlled studies. The anecdata bring the problems to life in a way that pure numbers don't, yet at the same time anecdotes are easy for those in the sciences to discount because they are not data (hence why I have been referring to them as "anecdata" because, well, it can be argued that the plural for anecdote is data).
Given the larger conversation that has been on-going for the past few years of women in the sciences, and the blatant misogyny that I keep running up against from big names (Google "Richard Dawkins women"), The Only Woman in the Room is an important book, and very timely. Remember in June when Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Tim Hunt said at a science conference in South Korea, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry”? Or last November when European Space Agency Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor gave public interviews after the Philae space probe landed on a comet while wearing a shirt covered in nearly naked women? It is heartening, I guess, that all of these incidents have lead to huge public outcries and public apologies (in the case of Taylor) or firings (in the case of Hunt). A decade or two earlier, they would have been the status quo.
I hope that Pollack's book inspires change in STEM education at all levels, and I hope that it also inspires women to pursue STEM educations and careers.
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