Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Only Woman in the Room

I received The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is still a Boys' Club by Eileen Pollack through a Goodreads Giveaway.

Get settled, I have a lot to say.

This book focuses on Eileen's personal experience as a woman in math and physics. She tells stories of her interactions with classmates and professors in high school and college. She also goes back to visit many of those professors and classmates thirty years later, after she has changed careers and become a writer.

Eileen does an amazing job of describing her experience. Her story is one of uncertainty, not knowing if she was good enough, and seeking that affirmation from others. Even when she returns to Yale thirty years later, she wants her professors to tell her that she is good enough.

I spent most of this book absolutely getting what she was saying at the same time that I wondered why my experience was so different. I took similar courses to the ones she describes in high school, and a few in college. Often I was one of only a few women in the course. I watched women around me say they couldn't do it, and move on to other things. But I never had someone tell me I couldn't do something because I was female. I was wondering where I was in Eileen's story.

Then I got to a chapter titled "The Women Who Don't Give a Crap." Eileen encounters a group of women scientists who have given themselves this name. They heard all the same things Eileen did growing up, received the same lack of support and encouragement. Their response is to say "That's okay, I'll do it anyway."

Ah, here I am.

While I still struggle to remember any specific instances of someone telling me no, I'm sure they happened. My response to criticism or suggestions that I can't do something has been to take what I believe has value, and dump the rest. I'm assuming I was somehow wise enough to dump any "You can't do that, you're a girl," comments.

The question I have and that I think Eileen may have been too shocked to ask the women who don't give a crap is "Why?" Why do some women not give a crap? Why do other women give a crap to the point that they don't follow their dreams?

Eileen doesn't really try to answer this in her book, but you could conclude from what she does say that it stems from encouragement and support.

I'm not sure that's the case. At least for me.

So this morning, on my long walk, I though about why. Why am I a woman who doesn't give a crap? I had to go way back, before middle school, before upper elementary school even. Here's what I came up with.


I was a free range child. Summers for me meant being outside from sunrise to sunset. Finding things to do while my mom was at work. I made all of my decisions for the day on my own (or with the input of friends). I made up whole worlds. Those summers taught me that I could create any reality I wanted. That I could do and be anything.

So of course I could do math. Of course I could be a doctor. Or an actor. Or an astronaut. All you have to do is imagine yourself there, and then see the path.

But you know what helps you imagine yourself there? Seeing other people like you already there. This was not an obstacle for me, I could imagine myself anywhere regardless of who was already there. But many people can't. They need to see that someone like them has successfully traveled the path before them.

Perhaps the biggest thing we can do to get more women and minorities into fields that they see as closed to them is to make the fact that women and minorities are already in those fields more visible. Include them in textbooks, for example.

My greatest success as a college science teacher may have been the semester I assigned my students the task of writing a scientist's biography. I gave them a long list of people to choose from, but there was a catch. There were very few names on the list that students recognized. The list was biased. It was skewed to favor women and racial and ethnic minorities. Faced with a list of people they hadn't heard of, my students had to come up with some way to choose. Some chose a name at random. Some did a little research, seeking out a scientist that they identified with.

At the end of the semester two students, one an African American woman, the other a woman on the autism spectrum thanked me for giving them that assignment. Each had chosen a woman like them. Each student had signed up for the class to meet their science requirement. Both now realized they could be scientists and ended up changing their majors.

Representation matters.

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