Interview with Eileen Pollack

Interview with Eileen Pollack on Gender Discrimination in Academia and the Workplace

Interviewer: Lorna Malja
Videographer/Editor: Gabrielle Valentic

[This is a private interview conducted with Professor Eileen Pollack at the University of Michigan for classroom use in English 340: The Historical Hinge. Usage for other purposes is strictly prohibited.]

In November, Lorna and I had the distinct privilege of interviewing Professor Eileen Pollack, the first woman to ever earn a Bachelors of Science in Physics at Yale University. Professor Pollack, author of “Why Are There Still So Few Women in the Sciences?, spoke with us regarding the existence and propagation of discrimination against women in academia and the sciences. Within a discussion prompted by Lorna’s interviewing skills, a particularly interesting theme arose: women could not be both attractive and display high intelligence in scientific fields.

“If you cross your legs, everybody stops talking and looks,” Eileen laughed sadly (2:00). “The culture is not conducive- You can’t dress in a traditional feminine way or you’re not taken seriously as a scientist (2:40). And then if you start dressing like a guy, you don’t feel good about yourself as a woman. And then there are the questions whether anyone will date you once they find out you’re a physics major!”

Eileen touches upon a startling reality for today’s young female generation. Girls today are faced with the choice in how they want to be viewed, as attractive, or highly intelligent. This dilemma directly influences what they choose to identify with, their femininity or their education, as if it is a binary choice. Women must be careful not to be too attractive, or academic respect is tainted, but they must also be careful not to be too intelligent, or they must therefore have lost touch with their femininity. Professor Pollack describes dating as a female scientist with some humor, “I was surprised that so many women of your generation that I talked to had that same impression… They were going, ‘Please tell us that some guys will ever want to date us.’ And these were really attractive women, fashionably dressed. You would think that any guy would be after them!” She continued to say that she still to this day withheld the full extent of her intelligence on dates. “Even today when I go out on a date, it’s several dates before I usually feel comfortable enough to reveal this ‘terrible secret’ that I have a Physics degree.” (7:10) .


“Amy Farrah Fowler” – The Big Bang Theory


Mayim Bialik – Actress playing Amy on The Big Bang Theory

Who then is enforcing these lines of judgement? Eileen thinks she knows. “Where is it coming from? Is it individual men? That’s hard to document. But if you look at the culture, when is a woman ever shown as a scientist? As someone attractive?” (5:53). She discusses how it is a very recent thing to portray a woman as both an intelligent scientist and an attractive feminine woman in shows like CSI. However, in the most popular sitcoms, women are still portrayed along the lines of the binary intelligence or attractiveness distinction. Her primary example of this is The Big Bang Theory, on which Amy, holding a doctorate in Neuroscience, is displayed as “homey” or “dowdy.” Eileen expresses frustration at this, questioning why the producers have to make Mayim Bialik, the attractive actress who plays Amy, seem less beautiful and feminine than she is in reality. While the ‘why’ remains a powerful, unanswered question, the effects of this conflict remain clear in the social conception that women who are both attractive and intelligent, particularly in a scientific manner, are simply unrealistic.

If you’re interested in reading more on how this issue directly affects education access issues for women, check out Lorna’s blog here for the original posting of this video and more discussion!



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