Neuroscience grad student Maia Pujara interviews the author, who speaks October 23 at the Wisconsin Book Festival.
At my lab’s department’s yearly lecture, one of the introductory PowerPoint slides displays a black-and-white photograph of the department’s founders. Every year, I look for the one short woman, barely visible in a sea of white males. The speaker does not acknowledge her, perhaps because the lecture is dedicated to one of the male founders, and every year, she remains nameless.
In The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still A Boys’ Club, Eileen Pollack addresses a question that inevitably arises from such observations—why are women so heavily underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields? Could it be, as former Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested in 2005, that it’s a matter of difference in innate aptitude between the sexes?
Born of an e-mail to Summers that turned into a New York Times article, Pollack’s final product is part candid autobiography as a former physicist-in-training, part interviews with her former science teachers, colleagues and researchers. Her analysis points to the many sociocultural leaks responsible for draining apt and capable females out of STEM career pipelines.
Pollack spoke with me by phone before her visit to Madison for the Wisconsin Book Festival this Friday.
Maia Pujara: As a graduate student in neuroscience, I feel like I was reading my experience note-for-note in your book.
Eileen Pollack: [Laughs] I’m sorry to hear that! I was hoping that women your age would say they didn’t know what I was talking about, but yeah.
Maia Pujara: It seemed like from what I read that it’s still very, very real. In a way, I’m surprised that a book like this hasn’t already been written. What was your motivation to write this book?
Eileen Pollack: Well, it’s what I said right in the preface, that when Larry Summers raised the question of where are all the female physics faculty members at Harvard, he postulated a bunch of reasons, some of which I figured made sense. Cultural biases and things like that. But when he was intimating that a reason might be genetic IQ differences at the highest end of the spectrum, or women not wanting to work as hard, as many hours a week as men, I just thought, no, no, that’s not what it was. And it had been very painful for me to walk away from science. I hadn’t really ever examined my reasons closely. I just made myself over into a writer and locked all that away, it was so painful. So I literally sat down to write Larry Summers an email. I knew Larry and I know Larry, and I just wanted to let him know what it really was. The email just kept growing and growing and growing, pages and pages, and at some point I just thought, no, I have to do this as a book, because I don’t even really understand everything that went into my decision to just walk away from what I had so passionately wanted to be.
When I finished the book, I sent it to Larry. So obviously it wasn’t just for him—it was as much for me as anybody else. But once I looked at my own experience—I’m trained as as scientist and as a reporter, and the glaring question was, “What has or hasn’t changed? Why are there still so few women? Could it possible be the same factors that influenced me?” So I just kept moving outward from myself toward other women from my era, but then to young women, your age, and then finally to whatever studies had been done by that point on gender bias in science. More and more of those studies are being done now. And then of course, it ends with my hearing from so many women once the excerpt was published in The New York Times. But really I just started with my own experience, and then curiosity made me want to check it with other women and with what the social scientists were saying.
Maia Pujara: Were you surprised by any of the reactions to your Times article or to the book?
Eileen Pollack: Yes. Surprised, certainly, when I was doing the research, that women your age were telling me stories that so echoed my own. I just couldn’t believe that young women were still getting teased by their teachers, you know, in high school, or that they were still afraid no one would date them if they were a physics major. That part, I was not happily surprised to find that out. But [I was] gratified, though, to find that so many women seemed to feel I was speaking for them. The whole part about needing much more encouragement than one really should need, and lacking the confidence even though I was doing so well, I did hear that echoed by so many young women. So again, sad but gratified.
I think the surprising part of the response to the Times article was, well, how illogical scientists can be. [Laughs] That a male scientist could look at that study by Jo Handelsman that so clearly shows gender bias—women against other women, old and young, all preferring John to Jennifer, even though the only thing different about their job applications was the name. You know, that male scientists could say, “Well, that isn’t gender bias. That’s not bias. If you make that preference for John, it’s based on experience. You know women aren’t gonna be as productive.” And that’s the very definition of bias! And I’m trying to convince them, like, “What experience are you basing this on? You once knew one woman who had a baby and lost a few months? How do you know you’re judging the woman applying to you by some vague notion of the category to which you think she belongs? That’s such bad science! You once saw a fruit fly that had six eyes, so all fruit flies have six eyes?” They were proving my point and couldn’t see that they were proving my point, or they’d yell at me for anecdotal experience, you know.
The way in which so many scientists, male and female, older, though, cling to this fear that if you bring in more women and minorities, you’re gonna lower the standards in science. I just did a stint at a technical university that will remain nameless, where someone refused to come to my talk because he said the university had two goals: one was that everybody increase the quality and quantity of their research, and the other that they increase diversity, and he knows that those two goals are mutually exclusive. Wow. So I would say to people, “Well, look. If a society can only get the scientists it needs from a barrel of white male scientists, it has to go really far down to the bottom of the barrel to get the number it needs.” So if you have all these other barrels with women in minorities in them, you could take the top of each barrel, which increases the quality of the scientists in the country, right? So if you don’t believe that, if that isn’t immediately obvious to you, as a scientist, it can only be because in your heart of hearts you do not believe that the scientists even at the top of those other barrels would be any good and would be better than the men in the bottom half of the white-male barrel. And yet! I’m still trying to convince these people. But I’m also happily surprised by how many men out there are just really, really committed to increasing the number of women and minorities in science and just don’t know how to do it.
Maia Pujara: And that’s what’s so important to me—I mean, going back to when that scientist said, “That study is biased,” it sounded to me like what he really was saying, he was saying with enough authority that it sounded convincing even though it was false. So if you could have men say things with authority that raise women and minorities up, I bet a lot of good could come from that.
Eileen Pollack: Well, there are some men who are doing very, very good work in that. I was giving a talk the other day and somebody said, “How do you find a good mentor, when there are so few women and minorities?” And I said, “Well, the mentor doesn’t have to be female or your own race to be a really great supportive and encouraging mentor.” There are some people who are doing great work helping those not like themselves, and I think it’s very powerful.
Maia Pujara: You had said something in your book that I thought was very interesting, about women needing to help other women, and sometimes women can be the biggest enemies of women in science. Can you say more about that?
Eileen Pollack: I wouldn’t say the biggest enemies, but the biggest disappointment to young women. So if you’re a young woman in a scientific field, and it’s all men around you, or you’re black or Hispanic and there’s like one black member, to have that one person sort of treat you even more harshly than the men or the white scientists, it can be just devastating. What I find is that by definition, some of the women my age and older who have made it, or to some extent minorities, they are by definition the people who were not blown out of the field by the sexism or racism or whatever. Some of them will say to me, over and over, “I was clueless, it just went”—and the make a motion—”over my head.” Or, “I was just so tough, nothing could stop me.” And so they don’t understand women who aren’t like that, and they think that should be the way you have to be to succeed. But, you know, there’s really no correlation between how tough you are and how good a scientist you are. I mean, tough, yeah, to pursue your experiments, but not tough putting up with all the crap, right?
Somebody said to me, “Diana Nyad, the swimmer—she swam from Cuba to Florida and she didn’t let all the jellyfish stings and sharks stop her.” Like, OK, so you gotta be Diana Nyad to be a great scientists? No! That shouldn’t be—we’re losing people who don’t want to put up with all the sexism or racism or horrible working conditions in grad school or whatever. So by definition, the people who’ve made it may be less sympathetic or understanding to those who have trouble. Or they’re trying to toughen up people to survive what they had to survive, rather than changing the system. Or they don’t remember what they were really like at a younger age. I was a mess in my early 20s! Even my MFA students, I have to compare who they are now to who I was then, not to who I am now. Sometimes I’m just like, “What do you mean, you won’t stand up for yourself?” Well, I didn’t stand up for myself when I was their age! I didn’t think there was any problem! Through all that stuff I described at Yale, I wouldn’t have said I was a feminist and I didn’t think there was any problem, and “Just leave me alone and I’ll make it through.” I was in denial!
Maia Pujara: It sounded to me like it was one of those things where you had to find confidence in yourself over time. I loved that passage where your son said—I think you were described as not very assertive in college, and your son said, “Mom, I can’t imagine you that way now!” What gave you that confidence and the ability to speak out for yourself?
Eileen Pollack: Most women find it by the time you get to your 50s. That is the great reward—everything else about aging sucks, but you don’t care anymore. It’s experience, it’s getting fed up, it’s not trying to please men anymore. Most women find that they get, you know, more confident as they grow up. It’s just such a shame that you make most of your decisions that will govern the rest of your life when you’re like 12, 13, 16, 18, and you’re just, so many girls are so enthralled to being popular, being sought-after romantically, sexually, looking at media to tell them who they should be. I did. And it’s worse probably even today. And then you grow out of it. You see what’s important, but it may already be too late by then.
It’s not just in science. I was working on this piece for the Times, and I was thinking back to when I was a reporter in my early 20s, and it was amazingly hard for me to be a reporter. I cared so much what everybody thought of me, and if somebody got mad at me I curled up in a little ball. I’m like, “Who was that person?” [Laughs] You just stop caring. You grow up. But, you know, unless you have wise mentors and teachers and parents when you’re young, you sometimes don’t make the best decisions.
Maia Pujara: I noticed that the women who did succeed really young were the ones who had their own peer groups to go to.
Eileen Pollack: A huge part of the problem are that boys are brought up to—even if they don’t feel confident—to act confident, to not show their vulnerabilities, to just get over it, and girls are not brought up that way. I think that’s a really big difference. Yeah, maybe we do need to think about how we bring up girls and make them more confident and not dependent on other people’s opinions of them, and not care so much if someone says, “I don’t like you,” or “You’re wrong,” and just to buck up their confidence.
Maia Pujara: Do you think that it’s an awareness issue or a confidence issue or both?
Eileen Pollack: Both. Here’s a great example. You should know this, too, for your career. Somebody was telling me a story the other night of, I think it was physics graduate students at a good school, and there were quite a few women going through the program and they did great in their classes, and then they got to their oral exams, and they all were failed. None of the women could get through their orals, and all the men went sailing through. It was such a bad problem that they studied the reasons, and they found out that when the women didn’t know something, when they were being grilled by their committee, they just said, “I don’t know.” And when the guys didn’t know something, they never, ever said, “I don’t know,” and they just pretended or switched the conversation or whatever, and they passed. So they were trying to get the women to just like, “Don’t say ‘I don’t know’!”
Maia Pujara: Too honest!
Eileen Pollack: “Don’t be honest, just do what the guys do and shift the conversation and throw up a smokescreen!” So that’s a great example. Is it a lack of confidence, or is it that the boys have been socialized to not show that they lack confidence or that you’re weak or don’t have the skill.
Maia Pujara: The other way could be that a guy is just told to say “I don’t know” when he doesn’t know something. I mean, it doesn’t have to be all on the women to make something up or pretend to be confident.
Eileen Pollack: Somebody said it’s terrible science to pretend to know something when you don’t and just throw up a smokescreen. I mean, you’re right. Somebody said, “Why didn’t they just tell the examiners, don’t penalize people so much for saying ‘I don’t know’ and listen more closely for when they are just bluffing?” So yeah, yeah for sure.
Maia Pujara: I noticed that communication is just something that is a big trap. A few times in your book you mentioned yourself saying, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that,” or “I wish I had time to argue” or “I wish I hadn’t gotten caught off-guard like that.” I find myself in situations like that constantly, where the rug is kind of taken out underneath my feet, and I don’t have time to react or stand up for myself. In times like that, I think, “If I had been more aware or something…” You know what I mean?
Eileen Pollack: Exactly. It’s awareness, it’s training, it’s just being alive to certain—you know, you can change patterns of behavior, or you can try to change other people’s patterns of behavior if you don’t think that your way of doing it is the problem. But awareness obviously is the first step to it.
Maia Pujara: Once I had a female colleague say, “I’m in this room full of aggressive men who constantly pounce on my ideas, but I’m not aggressive and I don’t want to change, so I don’t want to be here.” What is the solution to not wanting to change, to still wanting to present as feminine or sensitive in an academic setting?
Eileen Pollack: Well, trying to change the culture would be great, because not all scientific cultures are aggressive. People can change themselves if they don’t mind making themselves more aggressive. Just because you’re more aggressive at work doesn’t mean you have to go home and snap at your kids or yell at your husband or your friends. But there are also all different ways of doing things. I had dinner the other night with a math professor who’s tops in her field, she’s a full professor, and she was talking about graduate school and she had just about the best graduate school, probably the most competitive graduate program in her field. And she said, “The guys used to compete with each other to solve the problems and they’re all carrying on,” and she hated that atmosphere, so she would just take the problem and go back to her office and solve it and make sure she understood it, and she didn’t really care if the guys knew that she had solved it or not. You know? And she got where she wanted to go, because that kind of locker-room bantering, one-upsmanship, it’s not the basis of great math. If you go back to your office and you solve it and understand it and then use that to write a really brilliant paper, are you gonna come out behind? Barbara McClintock with her jumping genes, nobody believed her. She just went off and did her thing, and she’s the one who—it took way too long for her to be recognized, that was really horrible—but in the end, she was right and she changed the field. So, that one’s not easy, changing a whole culture like that. But the more women you get in, right, you get a critical mass and no one’s acting that way and you tell the guy to shut up. [Laughs]
Here’s an example. That culture keeps a lot of women out of computer science. At Harvey Mudd College, in I think it was four years, they increased the percentage of their computer-science majors who were women from 10 percent to 40 percent, with just these very simple fixes, one of which was they have separate introductory computer-science classes for people who have zero programming experience and another for the know-it-alls. And even in the other class, if you start acting like a know-it-all or a show-off, exhibiting what they call macho behavior, they tell you stop and sit down. It doesn’t discourage the guys from going on in the field. But it apparently increased the percentage of women from 10 to 40 percent in a very short time.
Maia Pujara: That’s incredible.
Eileen Pollack: If all those women stayed in the field, if 40 or 50 percent of the room is now women, and maybe guys who aren’t so comfortable being aggressive either, maybe at some point you can tell those guys to stop that—”That’s not how we behave here at my company.”
Maia Pujara: Right, because they’re more aware of what they should be like.
Eileen Pollack: Or at least the people who don’t like to act that way can go off and have lunch together instead of eating with the guys who are shouting at each other and saying “Shut up, you jackass.”
Maia Pujara: But then it’s interesting because that separatism, do you think that can also have a negative consequence? Is there a part of it that says, “Oh, I belong in this camp, I don’t belong in this camp”?
Eileen Pollack: No, I think what everybody’s trying for is just that there be much more diversity of styles and approaches in all these workplaces. So you know, you have nerdy people who are doing this and aggressive people doing that, so that no one group feels, “There’s not a place for me at this company or this university.” And medicine pretty much went through that, right? Back in the bad old days, it was just male doctors and med school was this horrible hazing and I’m sure people just treated the young doctors, interns, residents like crap, and then they humanized the training process and got all these women in, and gay people could be out, and minorities, and except in surgery, probably, my impression is that it’s a much more humane, diverse environment with lots of different styles of being a doctor, and it’s not that aggressive, competitive model that it was back in the day. That could translate to other fields, too.
Maia Pujara: Is surgery an exception to that?
Eileen Pollack: Well, there’s still certain fields that are pretty macho and women are still way in the minority, and I think surgery is [one of those], but I’m a little bit out of my expertise saying that, but yeah, I would say surgery’s probably still like that.
Maia Pujara: I’m sure this has been brought up in the other interviews, but Tim Hunt’s comments on women, you know, crying, needing the validation of men, or having to work in separate labs—the reaction to that on social media was really very interesting, where women had a hashtag for that. I was wondering if you could speak to some of the ways that maybe social media has either hurt or helped in bringing more women into STEM fields or encouraging women to get on board.
Eileen Pollack: Well, the Tim Hunt thing was strange. I wrote a piece on it when it came out, in which I said that some of the issues he raised I thought were real. People in labs do fall in love with each other, and people of both genders cry because their advisors make them miserable, and you know, whatever. It turns out Tim Hunt has done a lot of work for women in science and what he was referring to, I think, was he and his current wife, I think, fell in love in his lab and left their spouses, so a lot of the crying is—you know, he thought people would know that. Anyways, so I don’t want to get into the Tim Hunt thing. Because I think it’s really hard to know whether that was fair to him or not. But I think social media’s terrific, because, yes, where’s this awareness gonna come from, where’s the support gonna come from, if you’re the only woman in your lab, but you can speak to women in other labs who are having similar experiences and you can connect on social media? That’s very powerful. And I think that’s great. I think that in a lot of the blogs, there are some excellent women scientists now who have amazing blogs and podcasts and things, and I think they’re doing great work in making women feel less isolated and helping younger women know what they should be asking for or getting support for, you know, what they’re going through. Yeah, how can that not help?
Maia Pujara: You were one of three or two women at your school who were majoring in physics at the time?
Eileen Pollack: There were a couple of physics majors that were getting a bachelor of arts degree and, you know, we were the only two getting a bachelor of science, but there were very few of us. I felt really, really isolated.
Maia Pujara: Do you feel that if you’d had a more diverse network, something, maybe not in your own school that you could look to, do you think things would have been different or the way you perceived yourself would have been different?
Eileen Pollack: Sure, it would have helped enormously. All the self-consciousness and sense of isolation, I had no role models, no one to go talk to. There were no women faculty members. Sure, that would have helped a lot.
Maia Pujara: I can’t imagine that. To be one of the few women in a classroom of men.
Eileen Pollack: My intro physics class, I think, if I remember, was 118 men and two women.
Maia Pujara: Oh my gosh.
Eileen Pollack: And I’m not that old! I just gave a talk at Google, and one of the young guys said, “I read that you were one of the first two women to get a physics degree from Yale, so I’d been picturing you as like this 95-year-old tottering thing,” and I hope—I’m not that old! [Laughs]
Maia Pujara: I think that’s common. In the psychiatry department where I work, there’s a picture of the founders, all male, and one woman. That’s probably the same across a number of disciplines.
Eileen Pollack: I call that the “hall of men.” Every time I go to give a talk, I walk into the science department or the hospital or wherever we are, and there’s this long corridor of portrait after portrait of old white guys, one after the other. And so even your generation—OK, my generation there was only the one woman, but your generation still has the photos up on the wall where you walk in and you immediately think, “I don’t belong.” Get them to take those photos down! It’s like, enough of those guys.
Maia Pujara: Yeah. In your book, you talk about the subtle ways that those things affect us, but that’s very overt. That’s actually just a group of white men telling you, “I’ve made it, and you can’t.”
Eileen Pollack: Exactly. “I got here first, and you’re crowding the property.” But even in the culture, I was standing in line at Duane Reade [an East Coast pharmacy chain] the other day, and I was realizing, I had been staring for 10 minutes at this magazine rack, and the top magazine cover was Steve Jobs looking heroic and brilliant and whatever. The magazine beneath him was some women’s magazine and it had a woman in her underwear with her breasts coming out. And then there was another magazine right below that with Mark Zuckerberg, you know, looking like a genius, and then other that another woman in her underwear with her, you know, female parts hanging out. What image are you taking away from that about what you’re supposed to be in society? You know, a 16-year-old girl is standing there looking at that, what is she taking in? What a surprise that she’s not thinking of going into computer science!
Maia Pujara: What’s interesting to me from reading your book was that cross-culturally, that’s not the case. In other cultures, women are expected to be smart and even lauded for being smart.
Eileen Pollack: We’re seen as not—so, the women in some other cultures, they might not be allowed to do things without their husbands’ permission, but they’re not seen as being less talented in science and math. It was so eye-opening, the woman who said, I think it was a woman in a Times article, that in her country, whichever country it was, because women were seen as more creative than men, they were seen as being better at math, because math is creative.
Maia Pujara: Right!
Eileen Pollack: Who in America thinks that? Nobody! But in another culture—I went to an international conference of women physicists, and there were all these women there from Middle Eastern countries who could only come to this conference, the only conference they could go to, because it was only women and their husbands wouldn’t let them go to conferences where there were men. So you’re thinking, “Oh, poor downtrodden Muslim women.” But, in their cultures, they were not seen as less smart at science and math than men. That was just like, “What? Why would we be seen as less smart?” It’s so culturally based.
Maia Pujara: It was a surprise to read that. I would have thought that maybe the answer that you had to start off with was “is it innate, or is it learned,” and the answer to the question, based on the fact that it’s so different across cultures, makes it seem like it’s learned. Was that something that surprised you?
Eileen Pollack: Yeah, the first time it hit was at the masters’ tea at Yale, where that one woman, the whole group was going, “Nobody will date us when they find out we’re physics majors,” and this one beautiful woman raises her hand and says, “I don’t know what you’re all talking about. My boyfriend brags that I’m smarter than he is.” And all the girls were like, “What? Where are you from?” And she said, “Spain!” And they were like, “Spain? Are you from Mars?” But in Spain, this girl didn’t think it was weird that her boyfriend bragged on her being smarter than he was. That just doesn’t usually happen in America. So, yeah, that was when I perked up and thought, oh, cultural differences, must look into that.
Maia Pujara: It turns out it had a really big backing, lots of pointed evidence saying that it’s different in America. So it seems like it’s a national issue then, not only for women to get involved with science but in general, what you were talking about in your book, is that education is really deplorable in the U.S. for science. Can you say more about that?
Eileen Pollack: One problem I think is that women tend to be raised to be scared of science and math, and then most elementary school teachers are women. When I was interviewing the former principal where I went to elementary school and she said that, it really made sense. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. But also, we don’t produce that many scientists, partly because it’s considered social suicide for boys as well as girls to be too nerdy, you know, to be too good in science and math, so not a lot of boys or girls are going into secondary science education. We don’t treat teachers particularly well, either. So we have such a shortage of science and math teachers. If you do have science and math training, you can get a job that pays better in industry, or finance, and maybe not as much study has gone into how to really creatively teach science and math in junior high and high school. So people are bored by it. They don’t see what’s interesting or wonderful about it or why they should learn it, and I think that’s a big problem for both genders.
Maia Pujara: Is there a corrective for education in the sciences?
Eileen Pollack: That’s really getting out of my field of expertise. It’s always something I’m interested when I read the paper, but I would leave that to people who have really studied science and math education.
Maia Pujara: Going back to your experiences, you’re very open about the fact that you had crushes on a lot of your teachers and professors growing up, which I’m sure is not as uncommon as a lot of people might think. Was that something that you felt comfortable admitting at that time, or was that something that you only admitted to other people after the fact?
Eileen Pollack: I didn’t admit it at the time. I was hesitant to put it in the book, because it reinforces—obviously I wrote the book before the whole Tim Hunt brouhaha—but I was afraid it would play into the notion of girls not being serious or only looking for a husband. But I also thought, I wanted to speak the truth, at least the truth of my own experience, and the truth is that girls do get crushes on their male teachers, or, if they’re lesbian, on their female teachers, and that’s a very powerful force in what subjects they fall in love with, but also how comfortable they feel in a class, what their role is, how willing they are to go in for extra help, how comfortable their professors would feel helping them. To just pretend there’s no erotics in the classroom is not helpful. I teach my graduate students how to teach, and I warn them, “You’ll get crushes on your students. Your students’ll get crushes on you. Deal with it! Don’t act on it, but let’s look on what effect it has on what’s going on in the classroom.”
And so my response to the whole Tim Hunt thing was, yeah, this sometime happens, but the answer is not to just keep girls out of the classroom because they’ll be distracting. That’s one of the reasons they were kept out for all those centuries, or why in certain religions women shouldn’t be there because it’ll distract men from prayer. Well, like, OK, but that’s not women’s fault. And the whole age imbalance—boys sometimes get crushes on their female professors, which turns out to be relevant here, because I’ve spoken to female math and science professors who have to deal with their male students asking them out on dates, proposing marriage when they write their course evaluation, judging them on their looks and their clothing, right, but let’s also admit that women tend to marry men who are older, or they used to at least, and they’re gonna get crushes on the men in front of the classroom and that can be distracting. So let’s talk about these issues, let’s bring them out in the open, and let’s see what effects they have on the dynamics in the classroom and in the profession, rather than just keeping women out or ignoring these dynamics. I just barreled ahead and tried to be honest about it all.
The other part of it is that if men who are not scientists shy away from dating women who are, then the people that women scientists are gonna end up married to will often be the men in their classes, like their fellow students or their graduate instructors. Well, what are we gonna do about that? How does that end up working? I just want people to talk about it. You can’t wish it away by just pretending it doesn’t exist.
Maia Pujara: The danger would be thinking that you could attribute any of a woman’s success or knowledge or added confidence to her relationship with a man.
Eileen Pollack: Well, you know, certainly you wouldn’t want to think somebody got better grades because she slept with a professor, but as I said in the book, in all honesty, that was one of the pluses I had on my side! I had these little crushes on the men who were teaching me, and it made it more exciting. It kept me from dropping out so quickly. It was kind of a plus. Nothing ever came of any of it, I never would have acted on any of it, but it made it exciting for me and in a way that maybe the guys didn’t feel.
Maia Pujara: Do you think it just so happened that you only had male professors? If you’d only had female professors, would you also have held them in the same esteem or gotten as excited to be around them and asking good questions?
Eileen Pollack: That’s an interesting question because we do internalize these biases against women even if we’re women, so would I have respected them as much? I don’t know. I was pretty much in awe of the few female professors I did have, and I think I would have just been so thrilled to have a female professor. I don’t know. That’s a tough one to answer.
Maia Pujara: Is there anything that you would take away from this book that affected you in the way you now interact with men or with people in science? What new insight did this book give you after writing it?
Eileen Pollack: Well, there’s so many in there. I’d have to sum up the whole book again. I don’t know, my mind just kind of stopped working. I wanted to share something with you because of the field you’re in, just sort of between you and me, although you can put it in the article if you feel like it. So, women who were in the more biological sciences, some of whom I know from Michigan where I teach, they just seem to think this doesn’t apply to them because there are so many more women in the room in a biology lab or class. A study came out just this past month that a friend of mine did, actually, in Boston, and it was just published in the Journal Of The American Medical Association, and it was really amazing. He looked at, in biomedical research, after you get your degree and you get your postdoc and you’re gonna get your first lab—very exciting time—the institution that hires you has to give you startup money so you can start up your lab. You can’t even apply for grants until you have your lab up and running, right? So he looked at startup packages for men versus women in the biomedical sciences. So the men and the women have the same degrees and qualifications. First of all, there were more men getting these positions, which is interesting given how the numbers seem to be equal when you’re undergrad or even in grad school. The average startup package for a woman was $350,000. Which sounds great. You can imagine a woman going, “Wow, they hired me, I’m tenure-track, they’re gonna give me a lab, and I get $350,000 to start up my lab!” What do you think the average was for the guys?
Maia Pujara: Um, $400,000.
Eileen Pollack: $889,000.
Maia Pujara: What?!
Eileen Pollack: “What?!” It was more than half a million dollars’ difference. Can you imagine what a difference in your career that would make, to have the extra half a million or not have it, like for your first lab? Everything from there on is based on how good your first lab was, right? So you can just imagine the women go, “Oh, $350,000, thank you thank you thank you.” The guys probably got offered $600,000 and said, “That’s not enough, I want $800,000 or $900,000.” And the women don’t know what the guys are getting and the guys don’t know what the women are getting, and then they just go, “Oh, she’s not doing very good work, oh, look at the work he’s doing! Must be me!” After a while, it’s just like, “I’ll stay home and raise the kids, because why is this so hard? Why am I not doing as well as the guy down the hall?” I was just floored! And nobody’s ever thought to look at that before? This is a very preliminary study, but wow! And that’s in biology.
Maia Pujara: Who would have thought? I would agree that it seems like the numbers are equal in the biological sciences, but, yeah.
Eileen Pollack: So, I want you to negotiate. I want to you look at these things. I don’t want you just accept it for the fact that they’re giving it to you. But you talk about how do you change it? Well, the minute you hear about something like that, the minute you’re aware of it, would you ever just now accept the first startup package they offered you? No! Now you’re clued in.
Maia Pujara: So the women who claim there’s no inequity in the biological sciences, if they do something like this….
Eileen Pollack: Based on what? Based on you think there’s none? You know? Do you know what the guy down the hall got for his startup package?
Maia Pujara: That struck me in your book when you said, “I had thought that everything was equal,” and a lot of the women that you talked to didn’t think it was a big deal, that if you don’t call awareness to it, there’s no difference, right? So something that I think your book was really helpful in doing was in orienting people in the direction of being more aware about these differences.
Eileen Pollack: Well, I hope so.
Maia Pujara: It certainly opened my eyes. I had gone, “Oh, this isn’t a big deal,” or shoved away a lot of my experiences, but thinking back on them, I went, “Oh, that was kind of sexist.”