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A Little Encouragement

Women may not pursue a career in the sciences due to a lack of encouragement and cultural pressures, writes Eileen Pollack in the New York Times Magazine. Pollack herself choose not to go on in physics after earning an undergraduate degree in the subject. "Mostly, though, I didn't go on in physics because not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school," she writes. "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. "

Drawing on study data and anecdotes, Pollack finds that other women have had and continue to have similar experiences. During a recent tea at Yale University, where Pollack went to school in the 1970s, current female physics majors recounted being the only girl in their high school AP physics class, being teased by both classmates and teachers for being in the class, and being told that they wouldn't be able to compete with the boys in the class as well as not being able to find a date now that they were in college.

For the women who did continue on, such as the graduate students Pollack spoke with, they run into not only problems juggling career and family life as they enter academia, but also differences in salary and resources. Some studies, she adds, have found that there are subtle, implicit biases held — by both men and women — about female scientists, biases documented by a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study that came out last year.

Pollack ends the piece, though, with an anecdote about four women she encountered at a physics department barbecue. They tell Pollack that they got as far as they had in science by not caring what others expected them to do. "I figure if you're not going to take my science seriously because of how I look, that's your problem," one says.