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Insights into STEM with Professor Eileen Pollack

In today’s blog we talk to Professor Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club, Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, with degrees in English from the University of Iowa and in physics from Yale University.

David: Hi Eileen. Has feedback from your book produced additional insights into the origin and resolution of the issues?

Eileen: When I began researching and writing The Only Woman in the Room in 2005, few people were talking about the reasons so few women and people of color were entering--let alone pursuing successful careers in--STEM fields. Even after an excerpt from the book came out in the Sunday New York Times Magazine in 2013--and went viral--I had a difficult time finding a publisher because no editor thought any readers would care about the problem. The greatest progress we have made since then is that most educators, scientists, and industry executives now recognize that we need to change society in major ways if we are to attract and retain more women and people of color (and members of the LGBTQ+ community). To keep from destroying the planet, to prevent even more lethal pandemics, to figure out what dark matter might be, we need many, many talented scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and if we can rely solely on straight white men to fill that demand, we are going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality. If we can also rely on the most gifted female scientists, queer scientists, Black and Latinx scientists, then the standards will rise, not fall, and we will profit from a far greater diversity of experience, points of view, and types of creativity.

David: The project of making the world a fairer place is not direct but invariably subject to reversals caused by human aversion to change. Is token change in STEM a concern?

Eileen: After the book came out, I spent years traveling around giving talks at universities, research facilities, tech companies, and government institutions, and I was deeply moved by the stories I heard from the few women and people of color I met there, and surprised by how resistant to change so many straight white male scientists still seemed to be. Even department chairs and managers who wanted to bring in more women and people of color seemed baffled by how to accomplish this. The difficulty is that the forces that discourage women and people of color from entering--and remaining in--STEM fields are intangible and hard to document. A lack of encouragement. A lack of role models and cultural images that would allow young women and children of color to see themselves as physicists, chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians. Comments and actions that constantly make people feel unwelcome or undervalued. Introductory courses that still are designed to "weed out" anyone who isn't already well-prepared and confident. All these factors, all these implicit biases, affect men and women equally, people of all races. So you can hire a woman here, a Black person there, but the culture in the lab, the classroom, the math department, or the company lunchroom still will alienate many talented women and people of color and prevent them from pursuing a career they otherwise might love and flourish in.

I think the single most daunting obstacle to most people entering scientific fields is a lack of confidence. That's true of any field. To get ahead, you need to believe you belong, need to believe you are smart and talented and resourceful, need to believe you can take on new challenges, learn new skills, find the answers to questions no one else has answered. And women and people of color simply aren't raised to have that kind of confidence, as compared to the way most straight white men are raised.

David: From your experience, is there a difference between the creativity needed to produce scholarship in physics compared to literature?

Eileen: Not as much as you would think, at least if you're comparing theoretical physics and fiction writing. In both cases, you need to be able to spend a lot of time in your head, a lot of time alone in a room with nothing but a paper and pad or a computer. You need to be able to visualize a world that can't be seen, that only can be imagined. I was never any good in the lab, but I was good at visualizing how a wave could travel in N dimensions, and that's the same talent I use when I write fiction. (When I write nonfiction, I use my ability to come up with a good question and do the research necessary to answer it. That's a different type of creativity, one that's common to research/experimental scientists.)

David: What is your schedule like this upcoming year? There is some data to analyze that might lead to a paper on black holes.

Eileen: I haven't done any original physics research since the 1970s, so someone else is going to have to write that paper about black holes--which I will be eager to read. Instead, I've spent the pandemic editing a collection of essays about what it was like growing up during a tumultuous half century of changes in the roles of women, Jews, homosexuals, and people of color. That book will be called Maybe It's Me: On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman and should be out early in 2022. Now I'm looking around for an exciting topic for the next nonfiction project I want to take on. If anyone has any good ideas, let me know!

David: Thank you Professor!


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