Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club, by Eileen Pollack

I’m very interested in exposing the ways that women are discouraged from taking an interest in STEM fields, so Eileen Pollack’s The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club was an automatic add to my to-read list. While it wasn’t quite what I expected, it’s still a valuable resource for women like me who loved science and math but were discouraged from pursuing those subjects and, perhaps more importantly, for teachers and scientists who may not realize that their unconscious behaviors push women away. 

Cover of "The Only Woman in the Room" by Eileen Pollack

The Only Woman in the Room was inspired by then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ 2005 speech in which he wondered if women failed to attain the highest positions in scientific fields because of biological differences rather than discrimination and cultural factors. Pollack was one of the first two women to earn a BS in physics from Yale, though she left the field in favor of becoming a writer, so she set out to figure out what really holds women back and if anything had changed since she was in college decades ago.

While the description implied that the book was mostly based on Pollack interviewing other women about their experiences, the majority of the book is basically a memoir of her education in the 1960s and 70s in a small town in the Catskills and then later at Yale. While Pollack was one of the smartest kids in her class growing up, she wasn’t given the same chances to skip grades or take advanced courses as the boys were; the school administrators felt that “girls never completed programs in science or math,” and besides, her social life would have suffered if people knew how smart she was. Sigh.

Pollack, however, was stubborn in her love of figuring out the answers to questions most people didn’t even think to ask and was determined to make it as a physics major at Yale. She was hideously underprepared for even the freshman-level classes and struggled to keep up. As one of the first women allowed to major in physics and therefore frequently the only woman (or one of only two or three) in her classes, she was terrified to ask questions and risk looking stupid in front of her male professors and classmates, but she was similarly afraid that if she didn’t ask, she’d never figure out the material. (While interviewing several of her former classmates while writing this book, she learned that the boys were just as unprepared and loved having her in their classes — none of them wanted to look dumb either but they could count on her to ask the same questions they wanted answered. Male bravado being what it is, of course, none of them could admit it to her at the time, contributing to her feelings of isolation.)

Throughout her time at Yale, she never seems to be able to understand just how gifted she is because no one ever explicitly sits her down and tells her that she’s extraordinary. She struggles with experiments for months, only to solve them at the last minute. What she doesn’t realize is that very few undergrads could figure them out at all; she’s comparing herself to tenured professors with many more years of experience. In some cases, not even those professors could get them to work right every time. None of them realized how harshly she judged herself, and even if they had, many clung to old-school (yet persistent) beliefs that anyone who needs encouragement to pursue a career in science doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in science. In contrast, when she started taking writing classes, she had praise heaped on her, which ultimately made it pretty easy for her to decide that was a worthwhile avenue to pursue. In fact, she’s had a successful career as a writer, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t have been just as successful in physics if only anyone had told her she had what it took.

In the final third of the book, Pollack sets out to talk to others about their experiences, and this is where it’s really driven home that her story was pretty damn typical. From current students at her old high school and the physics department at Yale to women who studied physics in the past whether or not they ultimately pursued it as a career, they pretty much all were missing crucial encouragement and support. None of them were lacking in ability, but it’s hard to envision spending one’s entire professional life in a field that doesn’t seem to want you there.

In this section, Pollack also finally delves into more studies that back up what she and so many of us know from experience about the factors that prevent women from continuing in the sciences. Women have a tendency to wildly overestimate how competent they need to be in order to succeed (hello, impostor syndrome!), while men tend to wildly overestimate how competent they actually are. It doesn’t help that men are much more tolerant of incompetent men than of women who are anything less than stunningly brilliant. A mediocre woman is held up as an indictment of all women, even by men less knowledgeable than she is. The more we can do to expose double-standards like this, the more we can work to defeat them.

Peer pressure is also a huge factor that holds women back. In most American schools, students start to be separated into different classes based on intelligence in junior high, just when raging puberty hormones can make girls afraid to be singled out, even for something positive. Maybe especially for being smarter than her peers. While Pollack’s junior high principal was wrong to keep her from deciding if the benefit of taking advanced math and science outweighed the possible damage to her social life, he also wasn’t exactly wrong that unapologetically smart girls don’t tend to be all that popular. They’re also expected to compensate in other ways — they won’t be taken seriously if they’re attractive; they have to have some sort of “endearing” flaw to avoid intimidating men. (After an accident in the lab not long after arriving at Yale, Pollack decided to play up her clumsiness.) However, she discusses in the book how this isn’t always the case in other countries — women can be smart and sexy without scaring away men.

I’m trying to ignore the irony that a book about why women don’t pursue science in favor of more touchy-feel-y jobs takes an approach that’s, well, touchy-feel-y instead of scientific. Unsurprisingly, a lot of reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads are basically blowing off everything she says because she’s talking about feelings instead of just laying out cold data. While data has its place and I do wish there was more of it in this book, it’s enraging to read about all the ways people pushed her away from pursuing a career in physics — and it’s comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one who was really smart but couldn’t see past the sexist bullshit to realize I had more options than I realized. Hopefully books like this one will help other women before they get discouraged and abandon their love of STEM fields.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

By [E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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