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Review of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club by

The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club

by Eileen Pollack

In The Only Woman in the Room, Eileen Pollack shares her story of eagerly matriculating into physics at Yale, completing her degree, and then dropping out of science in favour of an eventual career as a writer and professor of English—ironically, what her parents initially advised her to do. Pollack connects challenges she faced, primarily during her time at Yale, to the larger systemic issue of the leaky pipeline in science and why more women don’t go on to get PhDs and remain in the field.

It took me a while to get into this book. Pollack’s writing style doesn’t work great for me. She kept mentioning incidents in an offhanded way when I was curious and wanted to know more about some of them. The overall chronological structure ends up monotonous as she relates one event after the next. There’s plenty of information, but it just wasn’t interesting to me.

Eventually, after Pollack starts her studies at Yale and then later when she is wrestling with her potential future as a physicist, the book is a little better. Still, the most interesting chapters are the ones at the end. Pollack revisits Yale and her hometown, interviewing new faculty and old teachers to get a better sense of how women and girls were and are treated in the study of science. These chapters shine. Maybe it’s because Pollack is recalling recent conversations using copious notes versus wracking her brain for recollections decades old. Whatever the case, Pollack connects with her subjects in this chapter in a way that her personal narrative doesn’t connect with me in the earlier chapters.

It’s a shame, for Pollack brings a unique and valuable perspective to this important issue. I can relate to her academic and career trajectory in the sense that I studied math in university, was very good at it, but ultimately decided not to pursue it professionally. Now, I had always started with the intention to be a teacher. And it’s important to note that I still thought I was a man back in university, so I received all the encouragement that Pollack notes most talented men receive and don’t even notice: I remember vividly a conversation I once had at a conference. I had been doing summer research, and my supervisor’s supervisor tried to talk me into going into grad school (and ultimately a PhD program) based on that little bit of work I had done. But I knew research wasn’t for me, and I am very happy with that decision, as Pollack seems with hers. Yet there is always a part of me that wonders….

So as Pollack discusses her reasons for leaving science, that hit me. I agree with a lot of what she says in this book about the need to give students (of any gender) opportunities to do research, the need to encourage female students more openly and explicitly to counter the anxieties they learn growing up, and the need to consider gender bias in the design of programs of study.

The Only Woman in the Room has a lot of promise, and there’s a great deal of good info here. Pollack brings an important perspective. However, I’m not sure how much of this book will stay with me as I get further from it.


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