There’s a striking moment in The Only Woman in the Room where Eileen Pollack revisits her old professors at Yale. As a physics major, Pollack’s college experience was fraught with isolation, as well as both overt and subtle sexism, in a field where most of her peers and all of her teachers were male. Summoning up the courage to discuss her time at Yale with her past instructors, Pollack is floored to hear that one professor considered her senior thesis to be exceptional and believed that she was fully capable of pursuing a career in physics. It’s the sort of validation that Pollack never received as a student, where instead she was sometimes actively discouraged and largely ignored. This validation comes, of course, decades after Pollack has abandoned physics for writing.
The Only Woman in the Room is a necessary book. Pollack’s forensic memoir uses her experience as a young woman interested in and ultimately deterred from physics to investigate the issues of gender and casual misogyny that pervade STEM fields. A response to former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers’s controversial comment that the underrepresentation of women in science may be due to “innate differences” between men and women, The Only Woman in the Room interrogates Pollack’s experiences, the stories of other women in STEM, and the hard data to try to find a more nuanced answer to the lack of parity. It is, in part, the sort of discouragement that Pollack received.
The true delight of The Only Woman in the Room is found in Eileen Pollack the character. That is, the young Pollack who savors being called obnoxious by harried elementary school teachers, who takes up wearing a fedora and smoking cigars in college, who is empathetic, spunky, and, ultimately, flawed. Indeed, one of the most admirable aspects of Pollack’s writing is her willingness to own up to the incongruous and undesirable aspects of her story, those parts that make her less an icon and more a human being. She talks about dating and clothing. She discusses her bulimia, her insecurity, and her interest in her male teachers. She even admits that at times she was proud to be the only woman in the room. Her story dominates the bulk of the book, and her honesty keeps the readers trusting her along the ride.
But if The Only Woman in the Room is a book about the lack of women in STEM fields, there’s still a need for validation that permeates Pollack’s prose. Anecdotes about her classroom experiences are neatly wrapped up with the assurance that she received an ‘A’ in the course, as if Pollack still feels the need to present her own credentials as an intelligent woman to write this book. Of course it’s hard to call this a flaw in the prose–it’s more a symptom of a society that refuses to accept that a woman who left science may still have something valid to say about it.
There is, of course, a temptation to say that the book does not do enough. Aside from an epilogue section that details work being done by other underrepresented groups, Pollack’s investigation largely ignores the experiences of these groups. Although The Only Woman in the Room makes gestures towards intersectionality, I would be remiss in saying that it must do everything. After all, it is just as telling that so few works exist on this topic that any lapse in representation stands to get picked apart.
It reminds me of Roxane Gay’s response to criticism of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, as written in her collection of essays Bad Feminist. Although Sandberg’s advice is only applicable to a certain class of women, Gay explains Sandberg would be accused of “overstepping her bounds” were she to offer advice to working-class women. Pollack writes what she knows and then attempts to situate herself in a larger conversation. The Only Woman in the Room is aware that it shouldn’t be the only book in the room. But it is an important work, an enjoyable though often disheartening read, and a book that bends genre to help us as a society do better.
Recently, I sat down with Eileen Pollack in her office at the University of Michigan to discuss the process by which an email can turn into a memoir, the risks of making herself an example, and the fact that it hasn’t gotten much better for women in science.
You introduce this book by explaining it started as an email to former Harvard President Lawrence Summers. How did it go from a message trying to answer Summers’s question about women in STEM fields to a memoir?
I realized as I was writing the email that I had never really thought deeply about what I had been through or why I had left physics behind because it was so painful for me to think about it. But in talking about myself, it started turning into a much bigger thing. I knew it was not just about me.
In a way, the memoir still does answer Summers’s question like the email sought out to. Because women my age would now be the kind of senior faculty that he was looking for. But I also wondered how my experience compared to young women’s today. I wanted to see if I wasn’t the only person who needed more encouragement, because if my story was completely unique, no one is going to relate to it when they read it.
When I teach nonfiction, we talk about writing to a question. If you write what you already know, it’s not going to be interesting for your readers. You need to be looking for some kind of a discovery, and so I went to Yale to see what and what hadn’t changed, because my story needed to be contextualized. After hearing from young women that their experiences were just as bad as mine, it floored me. That’s the moment I knew I had a book.
A large section of this book is devoted to your experiences as a woman falling in love with and then being driven away from science, before the narrative goes into the stories of other women and starts to break down some of the statistics surrounding gender in STEM fields. How did you arrive at the proportions of this book? That is, how did you balance your memoir with your interviews with the raw numbers?
After going to Yale, I went back to my elementary school, my high school, and I started talking to women I went to Yale with as well as other women in science. But I didn’t want this book to turn into “I talked to this woman, then I talked to that woman.” I wanted more of a narrative frame, a journey, a search to answer this question.
So the book took an unconventional shape. It’s not reportage, it’s not straight memoir. It’s something I would call a forensic memoir: a memoir where you’re trying to answer a question. Partly about your own experience and then also the implications of your experience on some larger issue.
So much of the humanity and interest of the book is centered on your experience, I appreciated its inclusion. Especially the fact that you were willing to take some unpopular positions, in the sense of talking about dating, about clothing, about wanting sometimes to be the only woman in the room. Did you feel that it was important to not just present yourself as an aspiring physicist wholly concerned with physics but also as an adolescent girl, with all the concerns that experience comes with?
You can’t write nonfiction if you’re not going to be honest. I’ve had people say, “How could you be so frank about that?” If I couldn’t be, then I couldn’t be a writer. You don’t climb a skyscraper if you’re afraid of heights. I knew this was the truth of my experience.
I could lie and say I didn’t care about these things. I could leave them out. But then it would be such a partial story. It would be boring.
But the fact that even now I worry about my image of femininity and balancing that with the idea of what it means to be a strong, independent women I think speaks to a larger issue of women worrying about being feminine and how these things might diminish their authority.
Were you concerned you were taking a huge risk when you made your story the focus of the book?
I knew it was going to be a controversial part of the book, that people were going to ask why it was all about me. You can’t be a woman in the Internet age and not know that you’re going to get all kinds of criticism when you put yourself out there. But I think people respond more to a story, to a person, than they do to a statistic, when it comes to answering a question.
On the subject of questions: I feel like some of the answers you arrived at are very surprising. Maybe not to someone who is involved with STEM right now. But, for instance, I’ve read a lot on the subject and was still taken aback by the statistic you cite from Why So Few? that says a startling amount of men receiving less than a 550 on the math section of the SAT still manage to have STEM research positions. Were you surprised by the answers you found, or was it what you expected?
The conversation I had with female STEM students at Yale was stunning because it revealed how little had changed. Even though there were a few more women in the room, most of the women experienced what I had.
I think the whole encouragement idea–that talented women and minorities are not encouraged the way their white, male peers are and so they drop out because they are not encouraged to go on–resonated with a lot of women in a way I didn’t expect. I’m surprised to hear that women are still not actively sought out to go on in the sciences. I feel like a lot of the people I spoke to defended themselves by claiming that they, as a rule, don’t specifically encourage anyone. My first impulse was to think I wish I’d known that then, but then again how strange is that? Most fields don’t do that!
It was especially hard to hear that it’s young women who are arguing that there’s no problem here. Like when you went back to Liberty, your high school, and spoke to students. The young women got upset and defensive when you even suggested that there might be some kind of disparity or inequality. Where do you think that’s coming from?
There are people who are surprised to hear that women are coming forward and saying this is not their experience. Which I think is great, but also if you’d have asked me while I was Yale, I would’ve said the same thing. I would’ve said this wasn’t a problem, I would’ve said I wasn’t a feminist and that I was doing fine.
But then there are the statistics. I read recently about women in the technical sciences getting their first start-up package for their first labs. You need a lot of money to start your first lab. You’re not in a position to apply for grants. The average start-up package for a woman is $350,000. And you see that and think that’s great! Good for them! There’s no discrimination in the biomedical sciences!
What do you think the average for the men was? It was over $850,000. Think about the repercussions of that for an entire career.
So the problems are more subtle. More psychological, more cultural. There’s women’s sports teams, there’s organizations for women in science. So you become convinced that some progress means that the solution has been found, that old stereotypes are outdated. And when you’re confronted with numbers like the average start-up package, it’s so jarring that it’s hard not to be defensive.
It’s been a pleasure to speak to you about this book. So I’ll end our interview talking about what comes next. In your epilogue, you mention a lot of other studies and narratives from LGBT researchers, scientists of color, and other underrepresented groups. Where would you like to see The Only Woman in the Room fitting into the larger dialogue of representation in the STEM fields?
The treatment of racial and sexual minorities in science is sometimes more pernicious than that of women in the sciences. I can and can’t speak to it. There is overlap and there are differences. So what I want to do is hopefully get the discussion going: let’s be honest, let’s not be afraid. I’m trying to do it for women, but I understand other people have it worse.
One of the most rewarding parts of writing this book was hearing from other people in STEM and social scientists who are doing this work for other groups and to see just how much is going on. So I’m signaling that I want to be a part of a much larger effort for change.