Women and Nobel prizes: a reflection on a path towards gender equality

Montse López · 15-02-2021 10:00 · Gender equality in science Science Chronicles

Since 1895, thanks to the will of the Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prizes are awarded annually to relevant people or institutions in different fields: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economics. Since then and for more than a century, the role and representation of women in our society have been evolving towards a more equal situation. Although there is still a long way to go, far are those years in which Marie Curie became the first woman to be a Nobel Prize winner (1903). However, Madame Curie was going to be initially excluded of the aforementioned award, to give the recognition of her work only to her husband, Pierre Curie, and to Henri Becquerel. Years later, in 1911, she became the only person who received two Nobel prizes in two different scientific fields: first in Physics -for the discovery of polonium and radium- and then in Chemistry -for the purification of the radius and the determination of its properties.

Many other women followed the steps of Curie: Jane Addams, Nobel Prize in Peace due to her social and feminist activism; Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, in Chemistry, for her resolution of biochemical molecule structures through X-ray techniques; Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of HIV, and the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich for accounting episodes of the Soviet history through the voice in first-person of their witnesses. In 2020, the picture of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna appeared in many media: it represented the first time when two women won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at the same time. However, it was not the only award with a feminine tint that year: Andrea Ghez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and Louise Glück received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

Nobel prizes awarded to women from 1901 to 2020. Copyright: Nobel media. III. Niklas Elmehed.

 

Thirty women were awarded the Nobel prize between 1901 and 2000, practically the same number as in the last two decades. The numbers have improved, but the Nobel prizes awarded to women are still significantly lower than those assigned to men in all fields. Nobel Literature and Peace have greater female representation (13.7 and 15.9% respectively), while Economy, Medical, Physics and Chemistry range from the small 2 to 5.5%. Although in some areas such as Physics or Chemistry, this percentage may reflect the intrinsic presence of women, this is not the case in (Bio)Medicine, for example. The low female presence in some sectors could be a matter of preferences of women’s professional choices or a matter of stereotypes. A study in the scientific journal The Lancet [1] suggests a correlation between the family and negative stereotypes of female scientists in each country, with the interest of young girls in science.

A history of inequality and the current presence of challenges for women to reach high career positions also explain these numbers. An article that appeared in Nature [2] in 2019 tells us the following: “…we found that the gender distribution in Nobel Prizes includes a bias against women of more than 96% probability. Hence, even women that resist the leaky pipeline and become permanent staff members do not have equal chances to be awarded the Nobel Prize”. And it specifies, "our model does not suggest that the trend comes from an unfair assessment of nominees”, (which do not have the opportunity to study because of the anonymity of the nominators), but points out that the possible origin relies on previous stages of the professional career that lead to a lower chance of women to be nominated.

What is it about? When we talk about the leaky pipeline we describe the loss of women (or other minority groups) as we move towards higher positions in the academic career, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). A European study from 2015 gives us some numbers. In Belgium, in 2010, 41% of STEM PhDs were women, while the percentage of university professors was three times lower than per percentage of men. Although these data have probably improved, it is most likely that the presence of women is still far from being balanced. One of the many factors that infer in this situation (in addition to those previously commented) is the so-called unconscious bias, which refers to unconscious tendencies towards discriminatory behaviors based on gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, and so on. Despite everything, many women resist the leaky pipeline. And what about them? More data: in 2011, 64% of women who had won Nobel Prizes were married compared to 97% of men; 55% of them had children compared to 86% of them [3]. Additionally, these numbers suggest that women, in general, tend to assume more family responsibilities, being a possible explanation of their lower rate of publication of scientific articles compared to men. Jauffred reported [2] that "these differences in family obligations and resources would suggest why men are more likely to be possible nominees for Nobel prizes."

This gap increases when we address the racial issue. Only four black women have won Nobel Prizes, and only in the fields of Literature and Peace. This represents 7% of Nobel prizes to women and 0.66% of the total. The first of them was Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize in Literature for her writings on the reality of African Americans in the United States. In relation to all this, the general secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the secretary of the Chemistry Committee of the Nobel laureates declared in Nature in 2019 [4]: “The unequal distribution of Nobel prizes is a symptom of a bigger problem. […] Our awarding process strives to give all scientists a fair chance regardless of gender or geography. As a small contribution, we are launching a Nobel Symposium in Africa. But others should work to improve the situation by encouraging women to pursue careers and supporting scientific research in poorer countries".

The greater presence, at the forefront, of women in traditionally non-feminine fields will likely encourage young women to participate in them. The dissection and study of the reasons why the situation of inequality has not yet been reversed will allow us to better understand the origins and develop adequate solutions. It is everyone's project to build a world where the Nobel laureates of the future will live.

Referred papers: 

[1] Guo, J., Marsh, H. W., Parker, P. D., Dicke, T., & Van Zanden, B. (2019). Countries, parental occupation, and girls' interest in science. The Lancet393(10171), e6-e8.

[2] Lunnemann, P., Jensen, M. H., & Jauffred, L. (2019). Gender bias in Nobel prizes. Palgrave Communications5(1), 1-4.

[3] Charyton, C., Elliott, J. O., Rahman, M. A., Woodard, J. L., & DeDios, S. (2011). Gender and science: Women Nobel laureates. The Journal of creative behavior45(3), 203-214.

[4] Hansson, G. K., & von Heijne, G. (2019). Nobels, gender and ethnicity. Nature574(7780), 634-634.

 

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