Brunswick panel: Science still a challenge for too many women

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BRUNSWICK — As the first woman to attend Tufts University’s nuclear physics program in the mid-1940s, one of the most challenging things Elaine Robbins faced was sexism. 

World War II had recently ended, and being the only woman in her major “didn’t seem to bother” her classmates in Medford, Massachusetts, she said. But some faculty members took issue with her course of study.

Robbins said one adviser told her she did not belong in the program, and she was “taking up the slot” that should have gone to a man.

Robbins recounted her experience in a Dec. 14 panel discussion called “Three Generations of Women in Science” at Curtis Memorial Library, organized by Jennifer Taback, a Bowdoin College mathematics professor.

Along with Robbins and Taback, Bowdoin students Waverly Harden, a junior math and computer science major, and Carina Spiro, a senior math and physics major, discussed their experiences as women working in the fields of math and science.

Taback said she first heard about Robbins’ past while talking to Robbins’ son, Peter, who owns Bohemian Coffee House on Railroad Avenue. Taback said Robbins’ story, paired with the book “Hidden Figures,” inspired her to put the panel together.

Robbins said she was skipped over for an academic award, despite having the highest grade point average in one of her courses. One of her male classmates was recognized for the honor instead; he received a new watch.

“I had a watch, I didn’t want a watch, but the idea that he got the honor because he was a man (was ridiculous),” she said.

Robbins said her interest in nuclear physics began in high school. At her graduation ceremony, she gave a speech about the benefits of nuclear science in health care, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had made people afraid.

“Everyone thought it was the worst thing in the world,” Robbins said. “I was just trying to convince people that there was a good part to nuclear physics.”

After college, Robbins said, it was difficult to find work as a woman physicist, which instead led her to teach math, first at public schools in Union, and later at Knox County Jail in Rockland.

Taback said she could relate to being discriminated against as a woman studying math, although it was never as overt as Robbins’ experiences.

As a result, Taback said a lot of the work she does now aims to “make sure women have opportunities.”

“People say, ‘Oh, isn’t everything equal these days?’ And the answer is really, no,” Taback said. “Not that anyone does anything on purpose, that would never happen, but there are a lot of subtle things in the way math education is designed.”

Spiro said before college, she did not want to be singled out for being a female mathematician and did not understand why her gender needed to be noted in discussions about her achievements. She added she knew plenty of women who practiced math during her childhood and became her role models.

“I think it took me until the past few years, seeing people from other backgrounds where they hadn’t had that support behind them, to realize it really is an issue we need to keep talking about,” Spiro said.

Harden said she also wants to be recognized for the work she does, not the fact that she is a woman, but did not have the same experience of having women as peers who enjoyed math until college.

“Coming to Bowdoin, it was nice to see there were other women in math,” Harden said.

Taback said she thinks overall, the representation of women in math and science has been moving in the right direction. She added being able to work as a female math professor, which she never had as a student, has been gratifying.

“I know that even with my being up there (in front of the class), I’m helping women in mathematics,” Taback said. “I think that it’s just important to make sure women and girls have these opportunities, and we encourage them and tell them this is something we can do as well.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Waverly Harden, left, Carina Spiro, Jennifer Taback and Elaine Robbins discuss “Three Generations of Women in Science” at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick on Dec. 14.