A few days ago, writer Eileen Pollack was standing in line at a pharmacy when her thoughts about sexism in the professional realms of math and science were affirmed.
In a vertical magazine rack next to the line, four titles were lined up: two glowing profiles of male tech industry icons (Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg), and two covers featuring women in their underwear.
“Young women are getting the impression that their importance in the world is to look good in their underwear,” Pollack said. “And white men are the ones who go into high tech.”
Pollack will appear at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Friday, Oct. 23 at 2:30 p.m., to speak about her book, “The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.” The event will be held at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St.
She was inspired to write the book, she said, by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers’ now-infamous comments at a 2005 conference. Summers posited that small number of women working in scientific fields at prestigious universities may be due to “innate” differences between the sexes.
“I was upset,” Pollack said of Summers’ comments. “But I was upset more because I felt this huge gap between what I knew to be a woman’s experience of trying to do almost anything and most men's experience.”
Pollack abandoned a career in the hard sciences decades ago, after earning her bachelor of science degree in physics from Yale. She was among the first two women to earn that degree at the university.
Her reasons for feeling unfit, ill-suited and out of place in the field were complicated — even to her.
“There were aspects of my experience that I couldn’t even understand,” Pollack said. “So I thought, if I couldn’t understand them, how could (Summers) understand them.”
So she decided to find out. Having written acclaimed novels, including a New York Times Editor’s Pick, “Breaking and Entering,” Pollack began working on what she initially conceived of as a memoir.
But then she decided to interview other women about their experiences, to compare them with hers: woman who had similarly left the field, women who were still in it, women who were studying for it.
“There are these psychological and cultural factors that you can only get at through narrative or sharing experience,” she said.
Six years of research later, she had unearthed some startling anecdotes.
One of the most interesting of which, she said, was how young women working and pursuing careers in the sciences today seem to face even more obstacles than she did in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Young women today are brought up to think that they’re not going to have any trouble — it’s surprising them in some ways,” she said. “I expected that guys aren’t going to understand what I’m going through, or the teachers have never taught a woman before. When I felt uncomfortable in the early seventies, it wasn’t coming as a big surprise to me.”
“Young women today don’t really get what’s going on, because they’re less defended against it,” she said.
Pollack also pointed out that there’s a wider contemporary gap between cultural depictions of scientists (like on the CBS hit show “The Big Bang Theory”) and expectations of women.
“I think that’s super important for girls in junior high and high school. That causes them to not want to take more advanced math or science courses. Then they’re not as prepared or confident in college. Then it’s the culture in the sciences that you should weed out someone who isn’t super confident or prepared,” she said.
Before Pollack’s book was published, an excerpt appeared in The New York Times. The comments on that excerpt quickly climbed into the thousands.
“I came up with an inadvertent study group of 3,000 responses that I could look at,” Pollack said.
Many of those responses pointed out gaps in her research, including a lack of attention to the challenges faced by other minorities in the sciences. She incorporated much of this input to an epilogue she added to her book.
Ultimately, however, those comments represented something Pollack was trying to accomplish with her work — spurring a conversation about the role and importance of minority populations in math and science.
“I hope, if you’re reading my experience, you’ll be inspired to write or talk about yours,” Pollack said. “What I love seeing is people who are looking into this and are writing from the perspective of a black female scientist or a black male scientist or what’s it’s like to be a gay geologist.”