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A Lab of One’s Own: Improving Women’s Experiences in the Hard Sciences

A Q&A with Eileen Pollack

Science Careers in Search of Women
Photo credit: George Joch/courtesy Argonne National Laboratory

Most every woman has probably dealt with a snide comment from a man about her inability to do math, or experienced being overlooked by a teacher who assumed she wouldn’t be interested in a scientific topic solely on the grounds that she was a girl. When Eileen Pollack was studying to become one of the first two women to earn a Bachelor of Science in physics from Yale in 1978, these constant microaggressions became the fabric of her daily life. In her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club, she looks back at how this sexism pushed her to abandon her dream of becoming a physicist, and then examines how the environment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has and has not changed for women in the thirty years since she left the field.

Pollack is now a celebrated author and a professor on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. For this month’s paperback release of The Only Woman in the Room—and in time for back-to-school season—Pollack talked to us about the extent of bias against women in STEM, and offers advice on how to make the sciences more hospitable to women in the classroom and beyond

Beacon Press: The challenges you faced in pursuit of a career in the sciences started in elementary school. You write that by the time you entered Yale as an undergrad you were already far behind your male classmates. What unique obstacles might women face during their middle and high school years that negatively impact their futures in the sciences?

Eileen Pollack: Girls still sign up for advanced science, math, and computer classes in lower numbers than boys. Guidance counselors and parents tend to allow them to drop those classes more readily than is true for boys, or not take the AP exams. But an even bigger problem is the way girls are led to think that if they do well in science and math, they will be perceived as nerdy and undatable. The decisions that girls make in their early and mid-teens can affect the rest of their lives; if they don't take advanced science and math classes then, it might be too late for them to catch up later. 

BP: If you could give advice to your high school self, would you encourage her to give up studying physics in favor of creative writing, or would you give her advice that might inspire her to stick with physics? To that end, what advice do you have for young women who are talented in both sciences and the humanities, and who feel caught choosing between the two?

EP: I would definitely advise my younger self to stick with physics! That's the subject I loved. That's where my real talents lay. I only gave up for lack of encouragement. For girls talented in both science and the humanities (which girls tend to be, as opposed to boys, who tend to be talented in one or the other), I would say: Give both disciplines a fair shot before you make a real decision. Don't go by which one you think is easier or more suitable for a woman. Go with the subject you really love. Don't expect other people to tell you what you're good at, what you should do with your life. Decide for yourself! Know that scientists have this crazy idea that if a person needs to ask for encouragement, she doesn't deserve it. Many science professors think that they treat their male and female students equally. But studies have shown that they actually encourage white male students in subtle (and not so subtle) ways, while subtly discouraging women. And society itself discourages women and minorities through the images and signals that our culture constantly is sending out. 

BP: Do you have any advice for male science students on how to be better allies to their female peers?

EP: Be aware that female science students might feel isolated, out of place, or insecure. Not all women will need extra encouragement, but some might. Be aware of the possible effects of “jokes” and “teasing.” Be careful not to assign the one woman on the team to take notes or bring refreshments rather than designing and wiring the robot. Obviously, do not sexually harass anyone! Be aware that a female science student might feel caught in a dilemma: if she dresses in a traditionally feminine way, she might be hit on, she might not be taken seriously as a scientist. But if she feels pressure to dress like a guy, she might feel out of place. (Imagine if you had to wear lipstick and a dress and heels to be taken seriously as a scientist!) Yes, a woman might feel flattered if you flirt with her or ask her out. She might even want to ask you out. But she also might get the idea that scientists are interested in her only for her body and not because she's a good scientist.

BP: Because the sciences rely so heavily on hard data, scientists can be prone to seeing their subjective experiences as empirical fact. Did you have trouble convincing people in the sciences to see the sexism in their field if they hadn’t experienced it first hand? 

EP: Yes! You would be amazed at the illogical arguments I get from scientists who are trying to deny that sexism exists in their labs, in their professions.  

BP: How does the environment in STEM classes and workplaces alienate women and what changes need to be made in order for women to feel more welcome in the sciences?

EP: That’s way too big a question to be answered here, but I do try to answer it in my book. Studies have shown that even small changes—being aware of what posters are on the walls, the decor in a computer science classroom or IT company—can have a huge effect on whether women feel as if they belong in computer science. But there are larger changes that need to be made as well. 

BP: How can educators and professionals in the STEM fields support and encourage women and minorities to help them succeed?

EP: By supporting and encouraging them! 


About the Author 

Eileen Pollack is the author of the novels Breaking and Entering (a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection) and Paradise, New York, as well as two collections of short fiction, an award-winning book of nonfiction, and two creative-nonfiction textbooks. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. She is a professor on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. She divides her time between Manhattan and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter at @EileenPollack and visit her website.