An unvarnished account of what it was like, in the mid-1970s, to be “one of the first two women to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in physics at Yale.”
Pollack (Creative Writing/Univ. of Michigan; Breaking and Entering, 2012, etc.) reveals why, after working so hard to become a physicist, she decided against enrolling in a graduate program, opting instead for a career as a writer. In part, she explains, her decision was a belated response to then–Harvard president Lawrence Summers' suggestion, in 2005, that genetic difference might explain why few women attained tenured faculty positions in hard science. Pollack first studied current statistics in order to determine how things have changed since then. To her surprise, she found out that today, women still earn only one-fifth the number of doctorates in physics. A “nerdy” aptitude for science or math, writes the author, “strikes most cruelly at adolescent girls.” This was the case for her and is still true today. Being the smartest girl in the class (like the author was during her adolescence) is often a recipe for social failure. Through high school and then at Yale, Pollack faced the distressing reality that being smarter than the guys was an automatic romantic turnoff. In her case, the fact that she had attended public schools put her at further social and academic disadvantage at Yale, where most students had attended elite private schools. Moreover, she was not included in the informal study sessions held by male students. She also experienced subtle discrimination from some faculty members. Her grim determination to succeed academically meant that she spent long hours alone trying to master the difficult course work. She achieved academic success but at a terrible psychological cost, as she suffered from physical ticks, bulimia, and depression. Throughout this important book, Pollack provides compelling answers to Summers' ill-considered remarks.
Hard-hitting, difficult to read, and impossible to put down.