Athena Swan

Athena Swan promotes and supports the careers of women in Science, Engineering and Technology (STEM), and aims to address gender inequalities and imbalance in these disciplines and, in particular, the under-representation of women in senior roles.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Book review - Why women in science are lonely — and shouldn’t be



Current (and future) women in science should be immensely grateful. In “The Only Woman in the Room,” an accomplished creative-writing professor at the University of Michigan, who also happens to have a bachelor’s degree in physics, has chronicled her travails as an undergraduate at Yale some 40 years ago, offering an engrossing look at the barriers still facing women in science. Rather than dwell on the dry statistics found in so many essays on this topic, Eileen Pollack draws attention to this important and vexing problem with a personal narrative, beautifully written and full of important insights on the changes needed to make those barriers crumble.
If Pollack had been a boy, she would have faced no obstacles at all in nurturing her math and science talents in elementary and high school. Boys less skilled than she were promoted to accelerated classes, but she was barred from taking them. “A girl who got skipped ahead in math might find her social life had been destroyed,” she writes about the philosophy of her Upstate New York school. It didn’t help that she was the smartest person in the room; her teachers were annoyed by her “unladylike” behavior of asking too many questions in class. Under social pressure to hide her accomplishments, she developed the habit of making self-deprecating jokes about herself. “At first, I didn’t believe what I was saying,” she confesses. “After a while, I did.”
Not until 2005, when Harvard University’s then-president, Lawrence Summers, infamously asked why so few women achieved tenured positions in the hard sciences — physics, mathematics, engineering and computer science — did Pollack reexamine her story to find answers. She started by conducting a sort of academic “autopsy,” going back to her old haunts at Yale. She learns from one of her past professors that her senior thesis was “exceptional.” But he never directly said that at the time, a validation she had vitally needed in deciding between science and the humanities. What she desired more than anything else was a virtual pat on the back. Another professor honestly admitted that he wasn’t equipped to mentor at the emotional level, that encouragement wasn’t in his nature. He figured those truly passionate about physics would persevere on their own.

Read more here.

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