The Only Woman in the Room


Recently, I picked up The Only Woman in The Room; Why Science is Still a Boys Club, by Eileen Pollack. Just reading the preface brought back a flood of memories from the days when I was a scientist and often the only woman in the room. Literally. Her words rang so true, and helped me realize that I wasn’t alone in my experience. Today I want to talk about just one of them, one I hadn’t thought about in a long, long time.

red cliffsI was a postdoctoral research fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the ink barely dried on my diploma, and a group of us were sitting in the Cafeteria, having lunch. It was summer, because my thesis advisor was there, along with Phillip, both applied mathematicians who spent time at the lab, usually in the summers. The cafeteria at LANL is a beautiful room, with huge plate glass windows that look out onto a stunning view of red cliffs, pine trees, and the snow-covered peaks of the Sangre De Cristos  mountains in the distance. I often enjoyed going there for lunch; they had a huge salad bar and a wide variety of hot food.

This particular day, I’d been pleased to be invited to sit with these senior scientists. My then-husband and a few other men were at the table with us, and the older men started telling jokes. The talk grew raunchier by the minute, until Phillip made a particularly sexist remark. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but many of the men laughed.

I was and am pretty good about pretending that dirty jokes are funny, and ignoring their implications, but this conversation upset me. I couldn’t believe they would say these things with me sitting there. I got so upset that I felt sick to my stomach. I said something and stood. My husband stood with me. Everyone else tried to calm me down and tell me to be a good sport, but I decided those scientists might have great reputations, but they were all assholes.

What’s interesting about this to me, looking back on it, is that this sort of experience happened to me many times, even if this is the worst one I remember. I had been told all my school years to be a good sport. Don’t rock the boat. Laugh along with the boys. It wasn’t until I read that this is a universal experience for women in science, technology, engineer and math that I realized how much damage it caused me.

Sure, one instance doesn’t mean that much, but when it happens over and over, it leaves a legacy. You might brush it off, like I usually did, but deep down, you sense you don’t belong. Deep down, you feel a little less than the men around you. You feel a little dirtied, and a little disrespected, and it’s a little less exciting and pleasant to be doing your job. It makes it a little less easy to reach out and collaborate and ask for help, and you feel just a little more isolated. Or a lot more isolated. And you might do some strange and perhaps unhelpful things, to deal with those feelings, especially if you weren’t brought up to deal well with your feelings. I sure did.

woman with book

If you’re a young woman dreaming of a career in a STEM field, or a mentor, perhaps a parent or a friend or counselor, or even an older woman in a STEM field, or a man in a STEM field, know this will happen, and consider how you’re going to handle it. I didn’t have any idea what to do. Perhaps if I’d reached out to someone, or had someone to reach out to, I’d have learned to speak up for myself and heal the thousand little cuts as they happened.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from becoming a researcher. It’s a wonderful life. There are things about it I miss keenly. In other posts I’ll talk about some of those.

2 thoughts on “The Only Woman in the Room

  1. It’s amazing how just that situation of being one of two girls with ten boys was enough to make you change your mind. I imagine it built upon other things which had happened previously in your life, but, yeah, as I read further into this book, I see how often that situation causes girls to change their minds.
    I look back on my career and wonder why it didn’t have that effect on me until I was way into my career. I don’t know if I’m just dense when it comes to social stuff like that, or if it was my parents’ encouragement from the time I was little which allowed me to ignore it.

  2. Hi Ann,
    Great article. When I began to choose a career I actually looked into being a lawyer (probably Perry Mason had something to do with it). When I went on a career day I was one of two girls with 10 boys. That was enough to put me off. Being shy anyway, that day did not bode well for my self-esteem. Needless to say I didn’t become a lawyer but became a public school teacher which turned out to be satisfying and interesting. The career I loved the most was the time of being a full-time homemaker (13 years).

    On the other point I totally agree that we as women must empower one another with the ability to do whatever we feel we are called to be. I spent December wearing a dress to advocate against human trafficking. My passion is to help those oppressed. But from your article I can see that this happens even in regular jobs. It has to stop!

    So happy that you are writing about this.


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