A Response To Eileen Pollack’s ‘The Only Woman in the Room’

Copyright Eileen Pollack, no copyright infringement intended

I was so excited when I heard about Eileen Pollack’s new book and first nonfiction work, The Only Woman in the Room. It’s a narrative that explores her personal journey through a rigorous science degree at Yale and also dissects the reasons she went into writing instead of physics. It’s an examination of why so few women start in the sciences and why so many of them drop out of science fields after they get their degree or even halfway through their science career. What is it that’s killing our love of science? What is it about the STEM fields that fails to nurture women’s passions and careers? I closed the book with mixed feelings; a sense relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt like I didn’t belong in the sciences (even though I love them), hand-in-hand with intense frustration about the lack of explanations for why we feel that way.

As I read the book, a vivid memory that I hadn’t revisited in years comes screaming back to me. Suddenly I’m sitting in my second grade classroom, looking at a worksheet. Everyone else has their heads down and is working intently but I’m just staring at mine, trying to make sense of the numbers on the page and what I’m supposed to do with them. Waiting for it to all come together, I feel a mounting sense of alarm as I realize that I really do not understand what’s happening. The panic clouds my mind even further and I feel myself on the verge of tears, unable to formulate any kind of rational thought about how to handle my lack of understanding. The kid next to me looks over and sees my empty worksheet, then looks at my face and asks loudly, “What’s wrong?”

“Oh…I just need to sneeze”, I responded quickly, getting up to get a tissue, not wanting to be a crybaby, not wanting to make a big deal out of schoolwork, which I was usually so good at. I am 7 and I want to sob because I don’t understand a math worksheet. I’ve carried this feeling with me throughout my entire academic career. I excelled, was praised, came in first in all the humanities subjects such as english and history. Sciences such as biology and earth science I found exceptionally interesting–more rigorous than the other subjects in which I shone, but in a way that only pushed me forward. Math, however, continued to be a problem that I could not solve. It was what made me want to shed tears in fifth grade when we had to recite our multiplication tables under a time limit, made me want to scream when I got my first B in high school trigonometry, made me feel like I couldn’t tackle AP calculus and settled for AP statistics instead, which was still almost impossibly difficult for me. In college, a biology major, I was still fighting back tears as I grappled with calculus homework and exam concepts that I couldn’t seem to master, no matter how many appropriate calculations I practiced.

Pollack doesn’t have this problem. She is brilliant at math, but this is not why I am frustrated with her book (although I am a little envious). She does struggle with feeling like she’s not good at math even though the anecdotal evidence shows that she obviously excels in it, but she does not dive very deep into the reasons why she may not fully grasp her own brilliance. She beautifully paints the picture of her own childhood, adolescent, and college experiences in math and the sciences, but every single one of her references to why she did not pursue the sciences further than a Bachelor’s degree irks me to my core. Not because they aren’t accurate to the situation, but because she does not truly look for the causal backbone of these issues. Pollack, throughout the book, mentions her very conservative Jewish family, referring to the fact that they do not encourage her and instead urge her to pursue a teacher’s certificate so that she can stay home and eventually get married. This exemplifies that it’s difficult to pursue something without support from one’s family, and that stereotypical gender expectations play a big part in that. But she also continually references the fact that her interest in the sciences made her insecure about what boys might think of her, and she paints this issue as if it is a universal draw-back for every girl who is interested in sciences—that being beautiful and having a boyfriend is far more important. The real problem is that although this may be true, Pollack does not explore the reasons behind these feelings at all.

Instead, her representation of this particular barrier to girls entering science fields makes every school-aged girl sound like a vapid teenager who only cares about appearances and kissing cute boys. In reality, this issue is perpetuated by the universally present idea that girls are only worth how they look, and that self-worth can only be found if you is loved or valued by someone, usually male,and  usually for one’s physical appearance. Everything in pop culture—most YA novels, TV, movies, pop music and especially advertisements—are all geared toward selling women the idea of ourselves as perfect, beautiful, and loved by someone. If we fail to meet those criteria, which everyone does, we need to buy something to fix it and be ashamed of the trait that makes us faulty. For many girls, that trait may be being ‘too smart’.

They may feel smarter and more mature than all the boys they know and are afraid that this makes them unattractive, so feel the need to dumb themselves down so they don’t make anyone feel badly and so that someone will desire them. This is not because they are ditsy twits only interested in boys and being popular, which is the sense that Pollack’s description leaves the reader with, especially when she describes everyone first by their physical appearance, putting extra emphasis on whether or not they are attractive, and insulting her own appearance. She repeats multiple times that she was ‘in love’ with every single one of her ‘handsome, brilliant’ physics and math professors. The fact that she mentions this is fine, even welcome. But that she goes no further than that? No explanation of those feelings or why she may have had them? No exploration of why and how women are conditioned to seek out male love and approval and how difficult that is to escape? Unacceptable. The complete lack of discourse around those feelings and their origins leaves the reader thinking that she only went into physics and went to Yale because of an attractive physics professor she saw on a campus tour, which is exactly what she implies when she directly follows her vivid description of the professor’s appearance with her decision to accept her place at Yale. This is clearly not true, as can be seen in the rest of the book—she is absolutely brilliant, the subjects she studied are considered some of the most difficult in the world, and her love for physics is palpable.

“…but it’s called The Only Woman in the Room, for god’s sake. If you’re going to explore the issues underlying the gender gap in science, do it right.”

I wanted her to go so much deeper than her cursory treatment of the reasons why girls may be afraid to go into the sciences, her approach to the issue being one that confuses the whole message of the book. I wanted her to explore the idea that women might feel this way because of a patriarchal society that does not celebrate or reward intelligence but only appearance, that does not provide love, praise, or appreciation for valuing oneself or pursuing your own path but only provides those things if you are loved and approved of by someone else. The fact that Pollack does not explore this leaves me angry and frustrated, scared that someone (especially a man) could read this book and come away with that message thinking, “Well no wonder women don’t go into science, they’re only concerned with how they look and if men love them.” I wanted to pick up the book and somehow insert a paragraph about patriarchal culture and values, to let every other reader know that it’s not girls’ fault if they feel this way—which, by the way, not all of them do. We’ve been trained to see everything in our lives through this lens of being wanted, quiet, and perfect, and it’s very difficult to unlearn. The way Pollack treated this subject left me feeling like she was afraid to use the p-word (patriarchy) in this book for fear of being branded too feminist—but it’s called The Only Woman in the Room, for god’s sake. If you’re going to explore the issues underlying the gender gap in science, do it right.

Pollack does address some of the fundamental problems keeping women out of science relatively well. She investigates economic and racial inequality, how starting off with few resources and little support makes it incredibly difficult to be successful in academic culture in general, but especially in the sciences. She makes it clear that within these disadvantaged situations, girls have it even harder, often being overlooked while their male peers are selected for advancement or receiving resources. She does emphasize that women in male-dominated fields receive little to no encouragement from their male (and sometimes female) leaders, referencing several studies in which both female and male professors and managers were given the same exact resume, one with a male name and one with a female name, and all of them showed the same bias to choose the male candidate even though the resumes were identical. She references studies and real-world experiences that suggest that women need more encouragement in these fields than men to continue into science careers. But why? Where Pollack leaves the issue in this area, again, does not truly explain why women may need more support.

The lack of exploration here leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions, making me afraid once again that a reader could assume that it’s because women are less driven or have less natural aptitude and thus need more prodding and hand-holding (which is how ‘encouragement’ could be read in this scenario). But that’s not true—women may need more encouragement because the society we live in expects us to put others before ourselves. We are taught to relegate our own feelings while we try to please others, that approval from an authority figure (who tend to be men) is paramount to our success and our sense of self-worth. These tenets, again, are inherent in patriarchal culture and one has to realize that they exist and that they are holding us back before one can start the process of unlearning them. I’m not saying that this is universal or that every woman feels like this, but I think it could be a main reason that women may feel that because they are not receiving direct, overt approval and encouragement from a professor or mentor that they are failing and they may as well give up. I know that I have often felt like this and most of my female friends have as well—if we are not praised as perfect, not directly told that we have done well and we should keep trying, then we have been unsuccessful. We have failed. This communication and perception bias deserved more than the superficial, unfulfilling treatment that it got in the book. Pollack does not even once consider this as the root of the ‘women need more encouragement problem’—in fact, she doesn’t even look for any root. She simply mentions that perhaps because the majority of visible role models in STEM fields are white and male, women and people of color may not be able to see themselves in those roles. This is certainly a contributing factor to the gender and racial gaps in the sciences, but it is definitely not the sole culprit.

This is a problem that needs to be addressed, for women and for anyone with low confidence in their STEM abilities. This is not just a feminist issue—I think it is a universal issue prevalent in America’s educational system. The intense pressure to do well in order to go to college and further one’s education is such that there is no room for failure. As a small side-note: America’s educational system (and its plentiful flaws) is a unique maelstrom of disaster that could be its own book, but I will leave it here by saying that not everyone feels the intense pressure to go to college and that different communities struggle with myriad different educational issues—the one I am addressing here barely skims the surface.

“America’s educational system (and its plentiful flaws) is a unique maelstrom of disaster that could be its own book, but I will leave it here by saying that not everyone feels the intense pressure to go to college and that different communities struggle with myriad different educational issues—the one I am addressing here barely skims the surface.”

Students are never told that they can take the time to actually learn the concepts, only that they need to take this test and pass, doing whatever they can to make that happen. Maybe that’s cheating, maybe that’s just learning how to take the test, but whatever it is, it is not conducive to learning and loving a subject for an intrinsic reason. When there is no room for mistakes and there is only room for success, you lose more and more potential scientists. Science is making mistakes and learning from them–reworking an experiment to see if this next iteration produces something interesting. When everything is all about the grade, upon which you may feel like your entire future rests, within a rigid system of tests and assessments, there is no room for learning.

“Science is making mistakes…”

I would argue that this issue of need for encouragement stems not only from a deeply ingrained (typically female) need for approval in order to feel worthwhile, but also from a flawed educational system that shames us for mistakes and allows no room for exploration, both of one’s own learning style and of the subject itself and how to approach it. Many teachers do an amazing job to combat this within the strictures of standardized testing—my biology and environmental science teachers provided an enriching environment full of encouragement and exploration and are a big reason why I felt comfortable pursuing a college degree in those subjects. I know that many people have a encouraging experience with their math teachers, but mine were such that only the right answer mattered and there was only ever one way to think about a problem, making me feel constantly trapped, like a failure. If someone had said, ‘you’re on the right track, keep trying’, or ‘let’s try thinking about it a different way’, or even ‘it’s okay if you don’t get it right, just try and understand the concepts, that’s what’s important’, I think much of my math anxiety would have been palliated. Maybe I would have felt comfortable and confident pursuing something even more rigorous like the pre-veterinary track, which was a dream of mine, but I felt that I couldn’t keep up with the math. My first really good experience in a math class was my senior year of college, in biostatistics, where I felt that the professor understood that there was life outside of his class, made himself available to anyone who needed help, and was always ready to explain a problem or solution from a different angle to reach as many of the students as possible. He helped me tremendously, but by that time it was a little too late for me to go back and apply some of my newly found iota of confidence to other math classes.

Overall, although Pollack does get it right in addressing things like salary inequity, racial and economic differences, and lack of consideration for parenting needs in science careers for both genders, she misses the mark in addressing the other issues, completely ignoring the fundamental causes. She merely presents other gendered issues as fact and leaves it there, unconsciously portraying women and their feelings about science fields in what I saw as a very negative, trivial, superficial light. And I find myself feeling that I have to rush to fix that, to tell people why those issues are prevalent and why they don’t reflect negatively upon our character as women. And I am angry that she’s put scientific women in that position and that we feel that we have to apologize and explain away our differences in the first place because people, including me, will assume the worst. And if that’s not proof enough that women are imprinted with and silenced by patriarchal values, I don’t know what is.