No longer “the only woman in the room”

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What was it like being one of the first two women physics majors at Yale? Eileen Pollack tells-all in her new book, The Only Woman in the Room. Here’s my review, published on Sunday in the Houston Chronicle:

‘The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club’
By Eileen Pollack
Beacon Press, 266 pp., $27.95.

Eileen Pollack entered Yale University in the mid-1970s as one of the first two women to major in physics (BS, as opposed to the less rigorous BA, she’s quick to tell us). She had come from a rural high school in the heart of the Jewish Catskills, denied entry into its accelerated track in physics and math, and then taught herself enough to ace the necessary Advanced Placement exams.

But after graduating from Yale summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with honors, Pollack made an “embarrassed exit from the profession” for English, at which she also excelled. Instead of applying for a physics grad program, she accepted a Marshall Fellowship to read Literature and Philosophy at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. “Although no single obstacle caused me to give up or fail, the constant need to jump so many hurdles wore me down.”

The thing is, despite her objective success in physics, the most esoteric of the esoteric sciences, Pollack felt herself a failure. Her detailed account of those years at Yale — a textbook example of women’s “disease to please” and crippling perfectionism — is a painful read.

What inspired Amanda? Not a Dad with a stack of LEGOs, but a Mom who’s a math teacher.

This book is Pollack’s lament: “I coulda been a contender.” After recounting her college experience, she goes home again, to Yale and her K-12 schools in Liberty, New York, to try to figure out why she quit physics.

She concludes: “If a single professor had said, ‘You know, Eileen, you really are quite good at physics,’ I would have been quite good at physics. In fact, I would have been quite great at physics.”

And yet when she revisits Yale 32 years later, to find out how women are faring today, Pollack, now a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, discovers that her teachers never encouraged anyone — male or female. “I can help students with the logic of ‘how does one approach things,’” explains her quantum mechanics professor. “But I don’t know if I can provide mentoring at the emotional level.”

Thirty to forty percent of the physics and physics-related majors at Yale are now female, Pollack reports. Twenty percent of all physics PhDs in the country are now awarded to women. Despite the subtle or not-so-subtle sexist messages they receive in high school, young women are managing to find their way into college physics programs.

Once there, despite the best of their professors’ conscious intentions, women still face an unlevel playing field: “Most science and math instructors believe they are being evenhanded in their refusal to encourage anyone, not understanding that any white male who grows up in this country already receives encouragement for his ambitions, if only in the form of the prevailing image of scientists as white and male.”

(For a thorough and thoroughly depressing account of how male preferential treatment operates, take a look at Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, by psychiatrist Anna Fels.)

Pollack was “the only woman in the room,” one of the pioneering generation in all fields who were obvious outliers, forced to conform to the old boys’ club. (Pollack herself went through a pipe-and-fedora phase.) As research explains, a lone woman is ignored, and a pair of women is perceived as threatening. It’s when we get to “the rule of three” that women can most effectively begin to work on their own terms and, perhaps, even change the culture.

The stars of the book, for me, are the trio of young female physics students whom Pollack reluctantly interviews back at Liberty High. The prospect of meeting them, reminders of her “former antagonists,” sends her into disabling anxiety, “not managing to attach names to the comments in my notes.”

These young women are fearless, full of chutzpah, and in love with science. One, proclaiming herself “on the girlie side,” loves to see the shock on people’s faces when she says she wants to become a high school science teacher. Another loves being good at solving problems. The third, Amanda, wants to be a surgeon. Nothing short of losing her hands, she says, will deter her.

What inspired Amanda? Not a Dad with a stack of LEGOs, but a Mom who’s a math teacher. “Amanda and her friends used to spend Friday nights with Amanda’s mom,” Pollock reports, “because she made doing math so much fun.”

They admit, “girls are still mean,” so their friends are mostly guys. “The cool kids are now the smart kids,” Amanda tells her skeptical elder. Smart kids are dancing at homecoming, wearing “I LOVE MATH” T-shirts without recrimination, and using “dork” as a term of endearment. Amanda plays soccer, and all the dorks are into some kind of music or art.

Somehow, these young women have managed to refuse the yoke of traditional female double-consciousness: always looking at themselves being looked-at. They shall inherit the physics lab.

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