The primary focus of Laura Hoopes's Breaking through the Spiral Ceiling is narration of her struggle as a woman in science in the 20th century, before, as she says, "men were ready for women in science." Hoopes's career as in biochemical genetics takes her to Goucher College, the Marine Biological Laboratories, Yale University, and Occidental College. Hoopes narrates her progression from the discovery of her passion for cell biology, biochemistry, and "the thrill of research," the refining of her approach to scientific questions, Ph.D. qualifying exams and graduate research, to her role as a researcher, professor, and mentor in her own right. Hoopes also explores the tension between the roles of research scientist, wife, and mother as she describes her two marriages (the first, a mixed-race marriage, ending in the tragic death of her young husband) and motherhood to a son and daughter.
At the heart of Spiral Ceiling is Hoopes's focus on the experience of women in research science. Why, she asks, when her graduate program at Yale had almost equal numbers of men and women, did three times more of the men end up as research university professors? Hoopes explores several factors that contribute to these numbers, including gender discrimination and the balance of family life with a career in science. Hoopes focuses on her many struggles as a woman, relating multiple instances of discrimination ranging from the subtle, such as lack of response to applications, to disturbingly overt, such as an attempted rape in the lab by a fellow graduate student. There is little doubt that Hoopes has experienced significant gender discrimination, and that a primary focus of her book is to relate her defiant struggles to succeed in scientific research. Although Hoopes mentions successful women professors, mentors, and researchers and experienced significant support and encouragement from many male colleagues, the book has an almost heavy-handed focus on her struggles with discrimination.
The story of women in 20th-century research science is an important one, and Hoopes's narrative is in many ways a valuable addition. Spiral Ceiling, however, suffers from disorganization and an unsophisticated writing style (the old high school writing teacher's mantra of the need to "show, don't tell" comes to mind). Very significant issues in Hoopes's relationship with her husbands and her children (such as racial discrimination toward her son or her second husband's alcoholism) are each mentioned but lack follow-through discussion – the author herself states that she is "not very perceptive," both about personal matters (the addicted husband) and the politics of the workplace. Description of fellow scientists and research positions are uneven in depth and detail: for example, a frustrating discussion with a male thesis mentor is described over several pages, but two years of research takes place in a sentence or two. Even Hoopes's research topics are described on a superficial, almost hasty, level, leaving the reader wishing for more clarification or detail.
Embedded in her story are gems of personal insight, and Hoopes presents a valuable resource for the history of women in any professional field. Many issues, alas, continue to be significant to women in science today. Spiral Ceiling, despite its faults, would be instructive and enlightening reading for any student (and particularly any female student) interested in science or intending to pursue research science. The somewhat stiff and uneven writing style is unfortunate, but the primary story is important.