Monday, June 15, 2015

The Only Woman in the Room—Eileen Pollack


I'm feeling conflicted about this book. I honestly think that if I'd had a more clear picture of what the book was about going into it I might not feel as disappointed as I do. Then again, I also probably wouldn't have requested or read it in the first place.

I'll start with the things that I liked, which was basically the final third of the book. I appreciated hearing from other women struggling to survive in the sciences, especially the voices of women who are undergrads or graduate or PhD students. These women are clearly right in the thick of it, and this section helped to legitimize the anecdotal "evidence" that comprised the first two thirds of the book.

As several other reviewers have noted on both LibraryThing and Goodreads, the title and the subtitle are incredibly misleading. First, the title implies that Pollack is the only woman in the room, which seems to imply a present tense, when in reality Pollack is not even in science anymore. Second, the subtitle makes it seem as though it's going to be a thorough, researched examination of why women have a hard time breaking into the boys' club of science, when two-thirds of the book is more an autobiography of Pollack.

Not only is the title misleading, but so is the description, at least to me. The description included in the Early Reviewers batch info was this: "Why are there still so few women in the hard sciences, mathematics, and engineering? Eileen Pollack sets out to answer this question by interviewing dozens of women, drawing on the latest research, and telling her own story about giving up on a promising science career after being one of the first women to graduate with a B.S. in physics from Yale. A personal investigation for women in the hard sciences, engineering, computer sciences, and mathematics—especially those who know firsthand the limitations of academic studies on women and science."

To me, the order of the list implies order of importance/focus. So when I saw that the description first said Pollack set out to answer the question by interviewing dozens of women, I thought that would be the primary focus. Overall, I probably would have respected the book and hypotheses included within the book if that had been the case. In my mind, if somebody is trying to answer the question to a systemic problem, the most helpful thing to do is to get as much data as possible in order to be able to adequately extrapolate a possible cause. This is especially true when Pollack's experiences—the majority of the content in the book—are nearly thirty years old, taking place during her time as an undergrad at Yale studying physics. How much can the world change in thirty years? Not to mention, the book seemed full of humblebrags interspersed with whining about how nobody recognized quite how special she was. For example, when she relates how she missed getting a perfect score on her AP exam in English because she misspelled boulevard, and then excuses herself by asking, "But where would I have seen the word? Liberty [her hometown] had avenues, and streets, but not a boulevard." Excuses, excuses. It's called studying. The nature of the book had me asking myself if I would think the same thing if the same words came from a male author; overwhelmingly, I found myself answering yes.

To some extent, I can understand where she's coming from. Societal structures are set up to create a system where, generally, men feel confident enough to not feel validation. But at some point, as a woman, you can't expect to always get praise and support and encouragement. Or you have to learn how to specifically ask for what you need, instead of assuming that it's not being given to you because it doesn't exist.

I actually found Pollack herself sexist and demeaning and stereotypical at times. She seems to tear down other women, most often those who decided to pursue Bachelor of Arts degrees, which Pollack deems as "cheating." Pollack seems to only remember the instructors who she had a "crush" on (her exact words, when she can't recall much about a particular professor because he was the only one she didn't have a crush on), which only serves to perpetuate the stereotypes about women in science.

It was frustrating to read this book, which may be taken by many at face value, as I initially took it; women obviously do experience this systemic sexism, as relayed in the last third of the book, but the often whiny, entitled autobiographical content that precedes it may turn many off to the legitimate struggles that women still face in the STEM fields today.

It was quite poignant to have finished reading this about the same time as the backlash after a Nobel-prize winning scientist, Sir Tim Hunt, remarked that women scientists don't belong in labs because three things happen: the men fall in love with the women, the women fall in love with the men, and when you criticize the women they cry. This is the perfect epitome of what I imagined the book was going to examine, on a large scale—rather than the incredibly micro scale that was offered. If you're interested, you can find out more about the backlash on social media following Sir Hunt's remarks here.

(I received this ARC through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review.)