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The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club

The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club - Eileen Pollack The last third of this book was more or less what I was hoping the whole book would be. It's an overview and dicussion of the different theories as to why there is still a lack of women in some STEM fields. The author's focus is on the upper echelons of academia -- I'm afraid that the fact that I have a tenure-track physics professorship would not interest her. She is mainly concerned about Harvard and her alma mater, Yale, and she shares the elitism of her home institution. But she has heard from many women in technical fields at all levels, and she shares some of their opinions and stories with us, which is helpful. She also summarizes the arguments from a few published books on the topic.

It was the first 2/3 of the book that disappointed me. This first part of the book is a heartfelt, honest memoir of her own path to writer-dom. She grew up liking science, majored in physics at Yale, and then decided to become a writer. Nothing at all wrong with that, and it seems that in writing this memoir, she is addressing her own demons in a way that is absolutely necessary for her as a person. But the telling lends too much self-importance to the author, and it seems she has been desperate to prove that she was smart enough to make it since then -- she doesn't miss the science, just the stature of being in a smart field. She spends too much time in the last third of the book knocking the innate abilities argument, which is a rare one these days. She really really wants us to think she's smart. And she really really wanted to be told so more often, then and now.

It is certainly the case that her story has something to do with why there are not more females in science today, but not enough to take up 2/3 of a book with title that this one has. Her journey is intensely personal and her decisions equally so. I think she makes the mistake of thinking that all women are like her. Since I myself double majored in Physics and English as an undergrad, I bristled at statements like "Every girl who ends up majoring in English instead of physics does so because she has a teacher like Barry Talkington". She then goes on to describe how she had a romantic relationship with this high school teacher. She may have just been trying to be folksy, but of course it's not the case that every girl, well, anything. Certainly having a romantic relationship with a teacher is not the norm. And she seems to have a crush on most of her young male professors in college, relying on a desire to please them more than any intrinsic desire to do well and learn physics. I don't want to invalidate her experience, but it doesn't match mine and it doesn't match what my female students have shared with me. I think that having a crush on a professor/teacher is a terrible reason to go into that field, no matter what field we're talking about.

Eileen Pollack has heard from many women from many different backgrounds because she had an article published in the NY Times, and lots of women told her they found something in her story they could relate to. That's wonderful and true, and, like I said, I wish she had spent more time sharing their stories. But we also need to realize that this sort of study is the kind that invites corroboration but not dissent. There are other stories out there. And the tone of the last part of the book admits that. But the first 2/3 of the book contradicted this. She mentioned in the course of her memoir that one of the difficulties in being a female science major is that male students don't get crushes on their teachers, so they don't have to deal with that additional layer of complication. Ummm. That actually offends me. If it's not clear why, then maybe I'm the weirdo. But does this mean that when I'm in front of my intro classes full of primarily male engineering students, I'm making life more difficult for them? I'm really not sure where the heck that argument goes. I'm willing to believe that I'm an abnormal person in many ways. But Pollack seems adamant that she is not, and I wonder whether that's really true, or whether it has to be true for her account to be meaningful. I don't think so, but she might disagree with me.

But okay, I've made my point. The last third of the book is very good. The first 2/3 is well written and intensely personal, which wouldn't be a problem except for the hubristic implication that she speaks for all women.

I got a copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley, and I'm sure they got more of a review than they bargained for in return.