The Only Woman in the Room

The Only Woman in the Room, is not only an experience I have frequently endured, but is also the title of a 2015 book by Eileen Pollack (subtitled Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club). I’m not sure why this particular book hadn’t crossed my path until recently, given it is about her experiences as an erstwhile female physicist during her education, but it hadn’t. She and I are near contemporaries but her environment in the USA seems to have been infinitely more hostile than anything I experienced, despite formal similarities.

I went to a girls’ grammar in London. I may have been the only girl in my year ‘weird’ enough to want to study physics at university but no one told me so to my face in so many words and they certainly didn’t make it difficult for me. I had an experienced teacher who had herself studied physics (at Oxford). How different from Pollack’s experience where, in a co-ed school, she was in a minority of one from early on in her attempt to get the subjects under her belt which would enable her to study physics at university. For a girl to enter Yale, only a few years after they had first admitted women and coming from what might have been termed a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ had it been in the UK, rather than some elite academy or private school, was also a huge accomplishment for her. Perhaps when she did it, she hadn’t quite appreciated how big a step she was taking or quite what she would be facing; no one had taken the trouble to warn or prepare her. At least my school had a track record of sending girls to Oxbridge and, even more to the point, Oxbridge had been accepting girls for many years even if in segregated single sex colleges. We were simply not unexpected in the lecture theatre even if uncommon (with a ratio of about 10 men to every women on average across the subjects).

I wrote about the not-so-very-close parallel between the Ivy League transition to coeducation and the opening up of Oxbridge colleges to a mixed entry in a post last year, written in a more impersonal vein on the back of the book Nancy Malkiel wrote (Keep the Damned Women Out). It did occur at around the same time but the fact that Yale and its peers had never previously allowed the admission of women to its courses seems to me to have made the transition to coeducation an awful lot harder than in the UK. Certainly, to return to Pollack’s detailed experiences of isolation, what she terms ‘subtle hazing’ and a constant battle to be recognized simply don’t tally with my experiences of a few years earlier.

Girton when I went up was a women-only college and therefore every time I returned there I returned to being surrounded by women. If I had wanted support – as of course I sometimes did – there were plenty of female friends and Fellows to offer it. But in fact I don’t recall my experiences in the lecture theatre or practical classes resembling the atmosphere Pollack found herself in. All alone as a female in a practical of around 60 men I might have been, but that didn’t seem to be the problem in itself. (The fact I was incompetent was much more to the point). In fact, in my chemistry practical in the first few weeks I was helped enormously by a lad from a posher school than mine who knew exactly what all the different glassware was for. He became a good mate throughout my three years, as well as my best friend’s boyfriend, all because we bonded over a conical flask.

Nor do I remember supervisors treating me differently from my male peers when, in my final year I was finally paired with men away from my own college. Indeed one of those supervisors was supportive then and has remained so ever since (thank you Archie Howie! My erstwhile head of department at the Cavendish, now an emeritus fellow of the college I am proud to serve as Master.). I was one of those tedious students who used to pin down lecturers at the end of lectures about missing minus signs and other things I wasn’t sure I understood, and they never brushed me off however annoying I must have been.

My Cambridge was, for me, a totally different experience than Pollack’s Yale. To take a very close parallel. In my first year – as in hers – I had a test (mine was just a dry run) in physics in which I scored some dismal score in the 30s. I forget precisely what appallingly low percentage it was but Pollack clearly felt scarred that she had scored 32.  She remembers it exactly. She describes in detail how she was so mortified by this failure, the belief it gave her that she was rubbish and everyone else was much smarter, and hence the compulsion she felt to work even harder. She doesn’t seem to have discussed her result with anyone to see whether any of her beliefs were true. I, on the other hand, had a sympathetic Director of Studies, the late Christine Mackie, who said merely she was sure I would do much better when the actual exam came around and she suggested I took the weekend off to clear my brain. (Advice, I may say, I took and cycled to Saffron Walden with a friend on a lovely spring afternoon.  When I next saw Mrs Mackie she seemed a bit startled by the literal way I had taken her advice.)

Pollack was so burnt by all her experiences, feeling at the time that no one ever offered her support or encouragement (although at the end of the book she admits that perhaps that wasn’t quite true) and that she basically was not wanted in the male geek club of physics, that she left the subject despite her initial determination to proceed to a PhD. Instead, although I never really understood exactly how this change was effected, she started attending creative writing and literature courses toward the end of her Yale years, found far more women in the room and a far more welcoming environment, and switched her aspirations. She has since made a very successful career as a writer and as an academic in creative writing. Yet clearly, all these years later, she was driven to try to explore what went wrong, what has changed – at Yale and elsewhere – for women studying physics and engineering. The latter part of her book describes her conversations with young women and, most notably, with Meg Urry the well-known astrophysicist and head of Yale Physics.

She reveals that many women still regard themselves as outliers, as unsupported and struggling in a hostile predominantly male environment. Again, I wonder how similar the experiences she describes of these current students would be to those in Cambridge. I would like to think the answer would be, as in my day, not very. The numbers of women in physics still struggle to get much over 20% but on the whole those I talk to do not describe a hostile workplace. They may find the course tough. They may feel, as I did with my chemistry practical class, that other students are better prepared than they are. Studies of exam results suggest that first year women do fare slightly less well but that the gender attainment gap closes with each successive year (by no means true in all subjects). Perhaps the legacy of the 1970s experiences of Yale and other Ivy League universities lives on in subjects like Physics. Perhaps Oxbridge got some things a lot righter then and now.

I did not warm to Pollack in the first part of the book. Her anger and hurt were visible but she came across as a fairly self-centred and unsympathetic character. I note that one of the reviews I read of the book in the Chicago Tribune obviously shared my reaction saying ‘As the sole focus of two-thirds of the book, they [her stories] land with a tremendous whine.’  Other reviews were kinder and I certainly felt drawn in by the end of the book to her exploration and comparison of now versus then.  In that sense it was a book well worth reading. But the contrast with my own, clearly relatively fortunate experiences, was clear.


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5 Responses to The Only Woman in the Room

  1. Professor in Physics says:

    I’m glad you had relatively positive experiences. But experiences probably vary quite a bit according to college, supervisors etc. I was an undergraduate some years after you but I had poor experiences in practicals due to mild sexual harassment (I went home crying a number of times) and there were several incidences of supervisors/lab demonstrators turning up at my college room uninvited.

    And while I did have many supportive supervisors (and I am very grateful to them) I cannot forget the supervisor who told me very decisively that I might be good at Tripos exams (top of year) but I was never going to be cut out for research. No reason was given and this definitive statement certainly knocked my confidence. I also had a couple of supervisors who behaved in a very patronising way towards me, ignored my questions and addressed many of their comments to my male supervision partners instead. Looking back, I would see this in terms of their awkwardness with women and perhaps sometimes simply not knowing the answers to my questions, but at the time I felt marginalised and ignored.

    On the other hand, I am very grateful to the students in my year. There were very few women in my year (less than 5 in my part II class) but the male students were nothing but supportive to me – even if they were sometimes a bit too interested in my personal life!

    Times have undoubtedly changed since I was an undergraduate but unfortunately female PhD students in my research field who were undergraduates in Cambridge still report negative experiences e.g. being put down and marginalised by male students and supervisors. When I first learned about fellow students putting women students down, I was surprised – I guess because it didn’t happen to me I hadn’t realised that this might be happening. We still have a way to go for minority groups, even if we have come a long way already.

    • I am aware I may have struck lucky in those whose paths I crossed. Certainly, later when teaching I saw male students make women miserable in practical classes by implying their skills weren’t up to scratch. But I still think the transition at the Ivy League was worse. I didin’t mean to imply things then, or now, were always perfect – as your experiences show and many young women now would equally attest. Just less awful!

  2. When I was in Yale in 1970 -72, there was not a single woman in a faculty position in either pharmacology or physiology, as far as I can recall. At the same time there were two women in UCL’s much smaller pharmacology department.
    Of course UCL had been admitting women since 1878, a very long time before Oxford or Cambridge got round to it. Nevertheless, when I arrived at UCL in 1964, I was astonished to discover that there was still a men-only common room. Usually I took coffee in the joint staff common room (you met women there, as well as a more civilised group of men). It took three years of joint effort by me (a young lecturer) and Brian Woledge (professor of French literature, nearing retirement) to get the desegregation motion past the Housman room dinosaurs. The 60s were a good time in many ways. The history is at “UCL’s senior common room and the Boston marathon: emancipation in the 1960s, and now”:

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