Interview with Eileen Pollack - Part 1

DiscovHER got to know Eileen in a candid interview about her personal experiences, as well as her recent nonfiction book The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

Tell us about your book, The Only Woman in the Room, and your inspiration for writing it.

When I was growing up I wanted passionately to be a physicist, but because I was a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take the few advanced classes in math and science that my high school offered. I made it to Yale anyway, but I was very lonely there; there hadn’t been any women majoring in physics before me.I really and truly loved theoretical physics. I wanted to go on, but having received virtually no encouragement and a lot of discouragement, I just walked away from physics and became a writer instead. 

That was very painful for me, but I locked it all away until 2005 when Lawrence Summers, who was the president of Harvard, looked around his university and asked where all the women physicists were. I think he was actually doing women a favour by asking this question. Unfortunately, the way he mused about possible explanations [for the female deficit] was not very helpful. One possibility he raised was that maybe women at the highest end of the IQ spectrum were just not as gifted as men in physics and math. Another was that maybe they didn’t want to pursue careers in which they would have to work so many hours a week. 

So I sat down to write him an email, trying to explain that no, it wasn’t a question of talent or unwillingness to put in long hours. There were all these other factors, and I realised that maybe I needed to write a book, partly because I didn’t fully understand the factors that influenced my decision to leave.

What, if anything, has changed for women in the sciences since your time at Yale?

As I did my research, I was shocked to find that virtually nothing had changed, especially in physics. There were a few more girls in the room, certainly at the junior high and high school level, than there had been in my day. A few more female faculty members. But most of those young women were experiencing what I had experienced.

The one thing that has changed for the worse is the pressure on young women today to dress up like princesses, to be very focused on romance, needing to have over-the-top weddings and focusing on their children’s every move. In some ways, society is now pressuring women to be even more concerned with traditionally feminine imagery and occupations.

In your opinion, what can be done to break down these gender barriers in scientific fields?

There has to be an incentive for the system and society to change. First of all, I think that people who are already in the sciences need to see this as a problem. One way to think about it is that society needs a certain number of scientists, and if we can only choose from the supply of white male scientists, the pool of talent will be inferior than if we can choose the best women and minority scientists, too. The more diverse a team is, the better the results. These are the people who are going to be designing the future for everyone. If women and minority groups can design the future, we will live in a future that isn’t just designed for white males.

We also need to make sure that girls are not hearing the belittling remarks from their teachers in junior high and high school. Then in university, science departments have to rethink what they do. Their purpose should not be to weed people out in the first semester. They need to encourage people to stay and catch up.

There are studies that show women are not succeeding even if they make it all the way to a tenured position. A recent study by Robert Sege revealed that the start-up funding packages for women in biomedical research is around $350,000. It sounds like a lot, but the average for men with the same qualifications is about $890,000! That difference will influence everything that happens afterward. If you have so much less money to start a lab, it will take you a lot longer to get started, and it snowballs from there. This is when young women researchers give up, and then men point to them leaving the field and say, “See? They would rather not do this.”

Inspired? Tell us all about it at @4womeninscience !

For Women in Science

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