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03 September 2015

Book Review | The Only Woman in the Room by Eileen Pollack

The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys' Club by Eileen Pollack | September 2015 | Beacon Press | Hardcover $25.95

This review is based on an e-ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss. The book is due to be published September 15, 2015. 

★ ★ ★

"A bracingly honest exploration of why there are still so few women in the hard sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science."

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This book is generally OK, but I’m not sure whether this is something I’d generally recommend. In my opinion, the way it is being marketed is ever-so-slightly deceptive. This is not really a book about why more men than women manage to have successful careers in science. It’s one person’s extra-long lament about their disappointing experiences in college – which, granted, were often due to being a woman studying science, but still… not quite what is being advertised.

There are some quite lovely bits of prose, like this one from the last chapter:

Which only goes to prove that if you want to become a physicist – or anything else – you need to do it for yourself. You need to do it for the little girl who couldn’t stop thinking about how everything that exists evolved from nothing, how the first human beings learned to speak inside their heads, whether time would exist if no observers existed to record it, how a ray of light sniffs out the fastest path to follow, how an electromagnetic wave might appear if it were traveling in two or four rather than three dimensions, how an infinite number of infinitesimally tiny slivers beneath a curve can be integrated to find its area, or how an infinite number of infinitely tiny fractions of human life can be combined to create a whole.

Unfortunately, this book seemed to focus primarily on the author’s own personal issues rather than any larger trends or cultural problems. Oh, sure, the story was well-written (as you’d expect from Creative Writing professor) and Pollack’s story is somewhat intriguing, but I’m afraid I just could not relate to either her experiences or her attitudes in many instances. Part of that is due to generational differences and subject focus (after all, a Jewish woman who studied physics at an Ivy in the 1970’s would have a different point of view than a WASP woman studying biology at a public college in the 2000’s), but part of it is her reactions to incidents in her life, which often struck me as unnecessarily anxious or defeatist.

I kind of hate that I feel that way, because the epilogue includes responses from readers who thought the author lacked courage or blamed other people for her failures too often. I don’t want to be grouped with the “male professors [who] wrote to express their impatience, even anger at women who exhibit ‘self-esteem’ issues” because I don’t think that reaction is productive.

Plus, Eileen is of my own mother's generation - and my mother was earning her master's in organic chemistry at roughly the same time as the author was going through university. My mother and I haven't really ever talked in depth about her grad school experience, but this book has made me curious. Did she experience the same issues? I'll have to ask next time we meet.

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I was also a bit irritated by her assertion, based primarily on her own experiences and anecdotal evidence from a few other people, that most women just need more encouragement than men in order to be successful in STEM academia. First of all, that hasn’t been my own experience at all – but again, we are products of different times and disciplines. But the more irritating thing about this assertion, to me, is that it wasn’t scientific … at least until well over 200 pages into the book, when Pollack finally mentions a major study on the subject and gets some evidence-based exposition from one of the women who published it. Here we are, diving into the topic of women in science, and one of the author’s primary assertions isn’t even backed up by scientifically gathered/considered evidence until the story is almost finished?

Where was the in-depth discussion of developments in science education? Where did the author give any serious page space to statistics, trends, or peer-reviewed papers? Where was the scientific investigation of “why science is still a boys’ club” in this book?

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I’m struggling to rate this one, because the book wasn’t outright bad. It was just… more of a memoir and a series of interviews than an examination of the STEM gender gap. To be fair, the very last part of the book did involve the findings of various studies/committees (with the focus on one in particular). But that wasn’t even close to the bulk of the focus of the book, and in the end it just wasn’t what I thought it would be.


Don't take my word for it. Lots of people have enjoyed this book and the conversations it sparks are super important. Check out these links for some different perspectives:

Publication information: Pollack, Eileen. The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys' Club. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2015. EPUB.

Source: Electronic format review copy provided by publisher via Edelweiss.

Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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