Eileen Pollack was the first woman to graduate with a B.S. in physics from Yale. In many of her physics courses, she was the only woman in the room. Constantly doubted, discouraged, and underestimated, Pollack struggled to find her place in the world of physics. Instead, recognized for her talent as a writer, she decided to turn away from physics entirely and pursue a graduate degree in writing. The Only Woman in the Room is her attempt to understand why.
Pollack’s raw and vulnerable memoir is like a cold white light shining illuminating the harsh realities many women pursuing STEM careers have experienced. Her memoir rings true because it isn’t just her story. She’s addressing the elephant in the room: the real reasons that many talented, intelligent women ultimately turn away from STEM.
In one scene, Pollack recalls bringing a cooking pan, spoon, aluminum foil and a battery to her junior high science class. Her teacher gave the failed experiment a disappointing grade. But without an adult’s guidance, she had struggled to complete the assigned experiment. Pollack argues that this is just one example of how young women are not encouraged to go into sciences — if she had been a boy, an adult would have been more likely to guide her through the experiment safely and successfully. Without this crucial source of mentorship and encouragement, the young and bright Eileen was left behind — all while her male peers received the resources and support they needed to pursue science.
“A child needed more than a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia to pull off a project like the one I attempted,” writes Pollack. “Even the brightest kid needs a sympathetic grown-up.”
Pollack’s memoir is powerful because her recollection of these seemingly small childhood occurrences — ones that many women can relate to — pieces together the full picture of her frustrating experience trying to pursue science. The mosaic shows sexism, stereotypes, and unjust expectations that the young Pollack desperately tries to overcome and ignore. But with all of her mental energy spent on competing with boys, standing up for herself, and trying to prove something, the idea of doing that through a graduate degree (and for the rest of her life) makes her sick to her stomach.
Physicists are expected to dedicate their life to their work. Men in physics during Pollack’s time didn’t need to wash dishes, do laundry, or take care of children. And Pollack was attracted to many of the young physicists she met — what if she married one, she wondered, who would take care of the children then? While a male physicists could get away with having a wife to take care of him, who would have dinner ready for her when she came home from the lab? These seemingly insignificant details build up to form the wall that many women, instead of trying to climb over and get into to the sciences, end up turning away from. Pollack is a gifted writer and has done great things with her life outside of physics. But her memoir isn’t a success story.
Her experience is like that of many other women who tried to pursue physics and felt put off by the environment, their male peers, and the way they were treated. Nautilus has an illuminating essay called The Parallel Universes of a Woman in Science by Kate Marvel that also addresses this issue. While reading it recently, I was struck by how much she reminded me of Pollack. If Marvel’s essay and beautiful writing fascinates you, it’s worth taking the time to read The Only Woman in the Room and explore the topic more in depth. Again, this kind of memoir-writing addresses the elephant in the room — why women leave science. And we need to talk about it.
“In high school, my physics books had been composed of words, while the same chapters in my college textbook were filled with diagrams and equations. Rather than see this as a warning — not only had I not learned the material in this book, I had not learned the material I would need to learn the material — I couldn’t wait to confront the first real academic challenge I had ever faced,” writes Pollack. But later, “[t]hat excitement turned to alarm as [the professor] raced across the stage, weaving equations I couldn’t unravel and telling jokes the humor of which eluded me. I hadn’t understood anything he said the spring before, but I figured I had arrived at the movie late, and if I came in at the beginning, I would understand everything I had missed. The truth is, if you don’t know the language in which a movie is being shown, you won’t have any better grip on the plot if you come in at the beginning than at the end.” Worst of all, the boy to her left leaned back and muttered, “Jesus…we covered this shit in high school.”
Pollack’s book explores the fear she feels from perceiving herself as behind her male peers. But as she comes to find out later, her lack of confidence stems from incorrectly perceiving of her abilities. She’s behind her male peers because she’s been denied the same learning opportunities they’ve been freely given.
The Only Woman in the Room shines in the final chapters. Pollack’s writing is vulnerable, honest, and logical. It’s unclear whether she set out to touch her reader or better understand herself, but she seems to have achieved both by the end of the book. It’s worth reading whether or not you studied science in college. It’s worth reading whether you are a man or a woman. And it’s absolutely worth reading if you are a lost, anxious college student like myself, worrying about whether I am making the right choices.
Eileen Pollack’s memoir is one that will withstand the lengths of time as one of the most important accounts of women’s experiences in science.