The book for this week’s review of a Women in STEM memoir or biography is The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club by Eileen Pollack.
Technically Eileen Pollack isn’t a woman in STEM. But her story belongs in this series because:
- She was one of the first two women to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from Yale.
- She describes her findings about how the situation for women studying in the STEM fields has changed since she graduated from Yale.
Growing Up a Girl
Many women who grew up with an interest in math and science will related to the first part of this book. In spite of Pollack’s skill in math and science, only boys could take advanced math and science classes. That didn’t keep her from entering science fairs and doing well. She won the honor of “the smartest girl in the school”. But everyone knew that the honor was secondary to winning the title of “the smartest boy in the school” . This perception didn’t change when she and another girl graduated from their high school as the valedictorian and salutatorian. The “smartest boy” graduated third.
During her senior year in high school she was accepted at Yale. She planned to become a physicist but teachers encouraged her to put a less technical major on her application. After all, “girl’s didn’t” major in physics at Yale.
The Yale Years
Pollack’s love of math and physics are obvious in this section of the book.
She describes her almost solo struggle to overcome the limited science and math education that she had received prior to attending college. Most of her classmates, all men, had participated in advanced placement classes. She was excluded from the study groups that the men students formed.
Her determination of overcome a disastrous mid-term physics grade in her first semester at Yale speaks volumes about her tenacity. She willingly took on a heavy class load in math and physics, including extra projects from her advisor. Her extra work put her on track to graduate in three years rather than four.
But her interest in taking writing classes, another interest from high school, interfered with those plans. As a result she had to share the honor of being the first woman to graduate from Yale with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics with a classmate.
Thirty-two Years Later
Pollock eventually decided to give up physics and become a writer. The third section of this book describes her research and findings of how things have changed for girls with an interest in math and science. As part of her research she interviews some of her teachers and advisors from high school and college. She spends time with current women students who have an interest in math and science to see how their experiences differed from hers. Some things have definitely changed for the better. The Yale Dean of Physics in now a woman. But other things haven’t changed. This book is definitely worth reading because of Pollack’s firsthand view of the life of a female STEM student then and now.
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