A fascinating article by Eileen Pollack in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine asks, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” It’s worthwhile reading for all wimmins, even those not interested in science, and I’m going to get to why that is … just as soon as I tell you about the science part.
Pollack was one of the first two women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics from Yale. She graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa in 1978, despite having attended a rural public high school where she had to teach herself calculus because she wasn’t allowed to take the few accelerated math and science courses. Yet, after all that, she didn’t pursue physics as a career (she’s now a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan). “Not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school. Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame,” she writes.
She returned to Yale in the fall of 2010 to see if and how things had changed. At the time, the chairwoman of the physics department was an astrophysicist named Meg Urry, with a Ph.D from John Hopkins and a postdoctorate from M.I.T.’s center for space research. When Yale hired Urry as a full professor in 2001, she was the only female faculty member in the department. In 2005, after Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard, seemed to hypothesize that innate differences between men and women kept women back in the science and math fields, Urry responded with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She wrote that discrimination isn’t always blatant:
“It’s the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.”
Pollack’s article goes on to give examples of both kinds of discrimination: the in-your-face type and the more subtle, sometimes nearly invisible-because-it-is-so-accepted type. Family concerns shouldn’t really be a reason for women to give up, says Urry, who notes that “being an academic provides a female scientist with more flexibility than most other professions,” Pollack writes. (Urry says at another point in the story about a male professor saying academics is a “very hard life”: “They’re their own bosses. They’re well paid. They love what they do.”) Urry, who describes an “equal relationship” with her own husband who doesn’t say “he’s helping” when he looks after their kids, “suspects that raising a family is often the excuse women women use when they leave science, when in fact they have been discouraged to the point of giving up.” Pollack says:
“All Ph.D’s face the long slog of competing for a junior position, writing grants and conducting enough research to earn tenure. Yet women running the tenure race must leap hurdles that are higher than those facing their male competitors, often without realizing any such disparity exists.”
In the mid-1990s, there was an investigation at M.I.T. instigated by three female professors who felt their careers had been limited by such hurdles. The investigating committee found “differences in salary, space, awards, resources and response to outside offers between men and women faculty, with women receiving less despite professional accomplishments equal to those of their colleagues.” Have things changed since then? Not as much as you’d hope. Pollack notes:
“In February 2012, the American Institute of Physics published a survey of 15,000 male and female physicists across 130 countries. In almost all cultures, the female scientists received less financing, lab space, office support and grants for equipment and travel, even after the researchers controlled for differences other than sex.”
And at Yale, Pollack’s alma mater,a study started in 2010 and published last year had researchers send out identical resumes to professors of both genders ostensibly on behalf of a recent undergraduate looking for a position as a lab manager. Half the 127 faculty participants received a resume from “John.” Half received a resume from “Jennifer.” The job application was good but not kick-ass. It came with letters of recommendation and the co-authorship of a journal article but both “John” and “Jennifer” had a grade point average of only 3.2 and had withdrawn from one science class. Each professor was asked to rate John or Jennifer (on a scale of one to seven) on competence, hireability, likeability, and the faculty member’s willingness to mentor the candidate. Then the professors were asked to choose a salary. The results:
“No matter the respondent’s age, sex, area of specialization or level of seniority, John was rated an average of half a point higher than Jennifer in all areas except likability, where Jennifer scored nearly half a point higher. Moreover, John was offered an average starting salary of $30,238, versus $26,508 for Jennifer.”
The authors of the study weren’t surprised that female professors were as hard on Jennifer as the male professors. Those results are similar to other studies that have found that biases stem from “repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent by simultaneously emphasizing their warmth and likability compared to men.” Women AND men are affected by those cultural ideas.
Jo Handelsman, one of the Yale researchers, was most bothered by the mentoring issue. That’s where Urry’s “slow drumbeat of being underappreciated” comes in. Handelsman mused:
“If you add up all the little interactions a student goes through with a professor — asking questions after class, an adviser recommending which courses to take or suggesting what a student might do for the coming summer, whether he or she should apply for a research program, whether to go on to graduate school, all those mini-interactions that students use to gauge what we think of them so they’ll know whether to go on or not. . . . You might think they would know for themselves, but they don’t. …Mentoring, advising, discussing — all the little kicks that women get, as opposed to all the responses that men get that make them feel more a part of the party.”
The “little kicks” are familiar to me. There was the high-school English teacher who asked me, “Why are you reading books by women?” when he saw me reading Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. At one of my first jobs, I was passed over for a promotion in favor of a guy who was completely inept. When I furiously challenged my boss, my boss stammered for a while and finally said of the incompetent employee, “Well, he’s older and has a family.” That was the same job that took place in a nasty, brutish environment run by men. For the first year, I went home crying nearly every night after being yelled at all day. The best way to survive was to act as bad-ass as the male managers. A couple of years later, a guy who worked with me at that place tried to knock me out of the running for another job by saying I was too mean, as if I had created the awful atmosphere rather than been hurt by it. I happened to be looking for a new job because I needed to escape an old job that became miserable after a male manager had spread a rumor that I’d slept with another male manager to get the gig. A few more corporate jobs down the line, I worked at the notorious investment bank Lehman Brothers, where the only female managing director I personally encountered was in human resources. Human resources is, of course, a non-revenue-producing part of a company. At Lehman, only the revenue producers had real power, which they used to bankrupt the company. These days, some people (male and female) judge the newsworthiness and saleability of my jewelry line based on their feelings about and relationship to my journalist husband.
Acknowledging such obstacles and using that knowledge to push on is crucial. In my corporate days, I spurred myself on to ask for promotions and raises — even when I felt shy or scared or like I would be turned down — by reminding myself that the men around me never hesitated to ask, no matter how average or downright undeserving they were. Pollack has a good anecdote of that sort in her New York Times story. This happens to be about a physics department, but it could be about any working environment:
“One student told [Meg] Urry she doubted that she was good enough for grad school, and Urry asked why — the student had earned nearly all A’s at Yale, which has one of the most rigorous physics programs in the country. ‘A woman like that didn’t think she was qualified, whereas I’ve written lots of letters for men with B averages.”
That kind of mindset is one that I’ve dealt with for a long time, but, in the past couple of years — trying to make it in a competitive, expensive creative field during a recession — I’ve realized that there was a whole new attitude I needed to learn: not to take setbacks as catastrophes. I think women are, more often than men, encouraged to give up when the going gets tough. Looking at the persistently low numbers of girls taking advanced physics classes, Pollack writes “Maybe boys care more about physics and computer science than girls do. But an equally plausible explanation is that boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers or guidance counselors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.” She then told the following story, which was the one that really jumped out at me. Pollack got a 32 on her first physics midterm during her freshman year at Yale. Her parents encouraged her to switch majors and off she went to ask her professor, Michael Zeller, to sign her withdrawal slip. Zeller asked her why she wanted to drop a course over a midterm when he’d gotten D’s in two of his physics courses. “Not on the midterms — in the courses,” Pollack writes. “The story sounded like something a nice professor would invent to make his least talented student feel less dumb. In his case, the D’s clearly were aberrations. In my case, the 32 signified that I wasn’t any good at physics.”
How many of you recognize that thinking? “Yeah, s/he had this failure, but that was a freak thing. My failure proves I’m no good”? It’s a pretty common reaction and, unfortunately, there’s not always a sensible professor/colleague/family member/whoever around to tell you how ridiculous is is. That’s when you have to remind yourself of a quote questionably attributed to Winston Churchill, but useful regardless of the source: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Pollack lucked out in the case of her failing midterm. Zeller didn’t sign off on her course change. “Just swim in your own lane … You can do it … Stick it out,” he told her. Pollack earned a B in the course and an A the following semester. (Later, however, when Pollack told Zeller her dream was to continue studying at Princeton, he shook his head and said if she went there “you had better put your ego in your back pocket, because those guys were so brilliant and competitive that you would get that ego crushed, which made me feel as if I weren’t brilliant or competitive enough to apply.” And it was only while she was working on this story, decades after the fact, that Pollack found out her senior thesis adviser considered her project exceptional.)
There’s more proof of the benefits of believing in yourself despite all odds in another story in the Times magazine. This one is by Fred Vogelstein, adapted from the coming book Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution, about Steve Jobs’s introduction of the Apple iPhone during a live demonstration at a Macworld trade show. It was done with more chutzpah than working technology:
“It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked.”
There was no production line. Only 100 iPhones existed. Some of them looked really bad. The software was full of bugs: “The iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not.” Jobs insisted that the demonstration had to go just so, and it did, although the “iPhone project was so complex that it occasionally threatened to derail the entire corporation.” During his product introduction, Jobs said, “This is a day I have been looking forward to for two and a half years.” And that’s from a guy who had to be convinced to do a phone in the first place.
Obviously, we’re not all rocket scientists (though “You don’t need to be a genius to do what I do,” says Meg Urry, reassuringly) or Steve Jobs. But there are a lot of failures hidden in any success story that all of us can take inspiration from when we need something to keep us going. There are going to be times the only person on your side is you, especially if you’re a woman or a minority. If the world is against you, you don’t have to agree with the world. And when, at last, you’re a big success, don’t forget to help other people who are hearing the same negative messages you did. Just because you overcame them doesn’t mean everyone else can. Be the person who says, “Stick with it.”
An aside to my aspiring clothing-designer friends: reread iPhone production line paragraph and then take this advice: When a store asks you, “Can you produce these items if we order them?” the only answer is “Yes.” Not, “Yes, but …” and an explanation. Just “Yes.” You’ll figure out how to do it later … or maybe you’ll fuck up and the store will never work with you again. At least you won’t have talked yourself out of the opportunity by saying “I don’t know.”
Direct links to both New York Times articles
“Can You Spot the Real Outlier?” (the title in the hard copy of the magazine) by Eileen Pollack
“And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone’” by Fred Vogelstein