978-080704657-9I was super excited to read Eileen Pollack’s The Only Woman in the Room.  There are a lot of problems with academic science, and these have been getting better much more haltingly than one might expect.  And the problem isn’t just individuals with retrograde attitudes — although that’s clearly an issue — but also structural and cultural arrangements that bias against neurotypical females.

I’d hoped that the bulk of Pollack’s book would be devoted to documenting these problems and offering suggestions for corrective measures.  If we as a society value science enough that we want for the best and brightest of all genders, upbringings, personality types, etc., to participate in the field’s advancement, I think there’s a dire need for investigative journalism that’d produce that sort of book.

Pollack’s book is primarily a memoir, however.  This is useful, too.  There’s a reason why medical journals still publish narrative-driven case studies in addition to the charts detailing aggregate patient response and recovery rates.  Details can be presented in stories that might be overlooked or ignored when many people’s experiences are moshed together to make a statistic.  After all, if we want the statistics to change, it’s women’s experience, actual lived experience, that we need to fix.

si-sexisminscienceBut I felt displeased while reading Pollack’s book.  My major complaint is that most of the book castigates scientists for the paucity of women in STEM fields… but the narrative suggests clearly that, in this case, the biggest problem is the behavior of non-scientists.

I’ll get back to that point in a moment, but first I should make clear that I’m not writing from the standpoint of an apologist who thinks the current state of things is fine.

Where I studied, first-year Ph.D. students had weekly tea with the founder of the department.  These were advising / advice sessions.  Students could talk about their interests, ask questions about the history of the field, get input on their courses, their research, their search for an advisor whose interests and outlook matched their own.  All told, a valuable experience for budding scientists.  But the advisor, an elderly male, invariably asked a female student to serve tea to everyone else in the room.  Even if he believed that the advice he dispensed next was gender neutral, that initial request (reasonable enough at the first meeting, because someone has to pour tea, and even at the second, but disheartening by the nth time the same young woman is asked to serve her classmates) discolored everything he said next.

Or there were the monthly lunchtime research talks.  A modestly-dressed fourth-year student gave a presentation on her research, fecal analysis of mothers and infants to learn when and with what species a newborn human’s intestinal track is colonized, and after the talk a female faculty member said to her, “That was a nice talk, but your breasts were very distracting.”

Individuals with that sort of retrograde attitude make science worse.  And it’s not just elderly professors who’re like that.  The individual from the tea incident, for instance, has since been retired by the reaper (the prevailing mood in the department was very somber after he passed.  For most, but not all.  When we rode in the elevator together, a UPS deliveryman told me, “You know, I’d feel bad too, except the old guy yelled at me just last week.”).  But it’s not as though there’ve been no young misogynists to replace the retiring ones.


And there are structural problems.  There’s a particular way that advisors expect scientists to talk about their research — brash, confident, competitive, as though it is magnitudes more important than anything else — that seems to come easier to the average male than the average female.  People who don’t have that sort of competitive attitude, whether male or female, can be marginalized… but for a host of both biological and cultural reasons, men in this country are more likely to have that sort of attitude than women.

Maybe this would be fine if brash, stereotypically masculine behavior resulted in better science.  It doesn’t.  Good science is intensely collaborative.  Competitive attitudes, like the race aspect of modern academic science to publish findings first before someone else “scoops” your work, diminish the quality and quantity of data that everyone has to work with.  And contributes to the irreproducibility of modern science, because researchers are pressured to specialize in niche techniques that are used on a particular problem in only one laboratory.

Of course, individual scientists don’t have the freedom to rebel from this system … if only because granting agencies are set up to fund only researchers who conform.  If one researcher decided to behave more collaboratively, the lab would probably run out of money and die.

Academic science could be changed in ways that would make it more inviting to women and would result in better science.  And those are changes that I think scientists will need to make.

Whereas Pollack’s book, despite castigating scientists, felt quite short on recommendations for changes that scientists should make to their behavior.  (I.e., changes to the behavior of a scientist who isn’t explicitly prejudiced against women, but has simply absorbed the cultural norms of modern academia.)

The most important corrective that Pollack offers is that scientists should be more emotive in complimenting students on work they’ve done well.  This is probably true.  In K.’s science class, for instance, she makes a conscious effort to praise students for their successes.  Praise them with words, not just a high score marked at the top of an exam.

Reading Pollack’s narrative, for instance, we learn that after a successful physics internship, the professor said only, “We’d like to have you back next year.”  After a successful research project in mathematics, her advisor didn’t praise her — a stark contrast to the lavish praise articulated by her writing professor.


But I think it’s worth considering a possible reason why Pollack’s physics professors may have been less effusive than her humanities professors.  While working in physics, the primary language is mathematics.  Quite a bit of physics doesn’t make much sense when expressed in a metaphorical language like English — the language most of us use to express our feelings, or to praise people, is simply maladapted to conveying a clear understanding of the universe.  So the practice of physics enriches for people much more adept with numbers than words.

Whereas humanities professors work with words full-time.  They really ought to be able to praise people with words more effectively than scientists can.

But the problem isn’t just that evaluating their competence for verbal praise is like judging both a carpenter and a welder on their skill with a blowtorch — is it fair to blame someone for relative inexperience compared to a full-time user? — it’s that many scientists have narrative experiences of their own that train them not to be effusive.

In part because the language of science is mathematics, science enriches for people who’re vaguely on the autism spectrum (I’d much rather use the term “Asperger’s” here, but that’s a topic for another post).  And many of those people experienced bewildering derision in response to their attempts to compliment people while growing up.  There are numerous examples of this in Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and I certainly have stories of my own.  I learned that it was safe to state facts (akin to the physics professor’s “We’d like to have you back next year”) but that emotional content often led to mockery.

2981Indeed, much of Pollack’s book is devoted to frustration that so few people wanted to date or have sex with her.  The book is sprinkled with lines like, “The only reason I could see that I wasn’t datable was that I was majoring in a subject they saw as threatening,” or a description of a woman who “hated when her sister introduced her as an astrophysics major, because the boys would turn away.

A big reason why women and minorities need to be praised to keep them excited about STEM fields is that stigma from the outside world.  But that’s not scientists’ fault!  I felt sad, reading the book, because so much of it seemed to blame scientists and praise humanities people, yet those same humanities people create the problems that weigh most heavily on Pollack’s mind.  Yes, it’s crummy that most boys at parties considered her not date-able.  But those boys were by and large humanities majors.  Because non-scientists were mean to her, Pollack needed for scientists to give her more praise.

Sure, it’s a big problem that scientists didn’t work hard enough to retain her in the field.  But it’s a bigger problem that non-scientists were so mean that, by the time she arrived at college, those science professors needed to work to retain the two (!) female students who enrolled in the introductory physics lecture instead of trusting that a reasonable fraction of 60 female enrollees (her lecture had 120 students) would stay in the field.

I was sad that this wasn’t stated explicitly until page 254 of a 257-page book, and even then in only two sentences in the middle of a paragraph:

It’s the larger society that needs to change.  No American of either gender will want to become a scientist if studying science or math makes a middle schooler so nerdy he or she becomes undatable, or if science and math are taught in a way as to seem boring or irrelevant.