Just last month I wrote a short piece about my journey to feminism, a gradual awakening similar to how America’s love for Taylor Swift has become more and more acceptable. This past week I was encouraged by a similar story from EileenPollack, a physicist-turned-writer, who came to Purdue University to discuss why women self-select themselves out of STEM disciplines.
I found her story compelling. Pollack grew up in a rural, underfunded public school system. Without any advanced courses, some of the parents in the district complained and a new system was set up: students who did well on a test would be advanced a year in science and math courses starting in middle school, and then during their upperclassmen years of high school could attend classes at the local college. Pollack was disappointed when she was advanced with many of her male classmates and livid when she found out the principle had held her back because, “everyone knows girls don’t go on in math and science and it would have been a waste of a seat.”
So she taught herself calculus and got herself into Yale where she majored in physics—publishing a couple papers on the way. At the end of her four years, she quit the sciences and turned to creative writing (where she has since published two books and several collections of short stories and currently teaches at the University of Michigan). Why? Why would such a gifted person leave the STEM disciplines when she clearly had the potential for a stunning career? By all accounts she was a brilliant physicist—doing all the work required of her with little to no institutional support. Why would fail to even consider a continued life in the STEM disciplines? Why would she fulfill her middle school principal’s prognostication that she, like other women, would not go on in the field?
These are important questions with sad answers. Pollack didn’t get “distracted” by a desire to make a family. Nor did she lack the innate ability to do math or science because of her gender. No one overtly bullied her or harassed her for being only one of three girls in the entire physics department. They ignored her and called it equality.
Pollack spoke of the time her pantyhose caught on fire when she spilled a chemical on it during a college lab. The hose going up in smoke and her leg, bloody and burned, caused her to scream in surprise. At the time she was wearing the pantyhose because she’d come from temple and a religious holiday, but other women have recounted the challenge of dressing for the sciences: too feminine and you don’t get taken seriously; too nondescript and you’re no longer “womanly.”
Pollock described the demographics of her classroom and the physics department—white men and a few white women—the pictures of past physicists (white men), the study groups conducted only in the boys’ dorms, the feeling of always being behind, outside, a token woman—representing women everywhere if she failed in her quest and an outlier if she succeeded. And so, without even considering it, Pollack threw away her career in physics for something less isolating, where her work could simply be work and not something she had to prove.