Women and the Nobel Prize

Since the creation of the Nobel Prize over 125 years ago, less than 60 women have been rewarded with the reputable award for their contributions to Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economic Science. Last week, four women - Andrea Ghez, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna and Louise Glück - were honored with the Nobel prize. Is this a step in the right direction for women's empowerment and equality?



From the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize to the last (=current)

From left to right: Marie Curie, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for her research on radiation; Jennifer A. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their development of a method for genome editing; Andrea Ghez, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020 for her discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy; Louise Glück, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020 for her poetry

Source: Nobel Prize awarded women. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020


Between 1901 and 2020, the Nobel Prize and the Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to 57 women (only Marie Curie won twice, in 1903 and 1911). 2009 marked the year when the most women, five in total, were awarded with a Nobel Prize in a single year. 2020 comes with four female laureates very close. The youngest ever Nobel laureate is a woman too, Malala Yousafzai, who was only 17 years old when she received the The Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her fight against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. Doris Lessing is the oldest women to win, being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 when she was 88 years old.



Number of Female Nobel Prize Laureates

Source: Nobel Prize awarded women; Nobel Prize facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020.



Is the Nobel Prize fair and recognizes diversity?


While the number of female laureates may be slowly improving, women are underrepresented among the Nobel Prize laureates and the diversity problem is even worse when it comes to race. In 2018, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science introduced measures with the aim to address the issue by encouraging scientists to nominate a more diverse range of nominees. Regarding the gender imbalance, these recommendations included asking more women to suggest candidates, and altering the wording of the letter inviting nominations. The new language explicitly asks nominators to consider diversity in gender, geography and topic. This seems to create a positive trend in female nominations, although it is small. Considering this "nobel imbalance", the Academy refers to Alfred Nobel, who explicitly stated in his will to not consider nationality when the prize is awarded. Only the most worthy individual shall receive the prize. Therefore, the Academy will, according to secretary-general Göran Hansson, never introduce quotas for nations, ethnicity or gender. The Academy ensures that the individual who receives the Nobel prize gets it because she or he is the most worthy recipient.


Nevertheless, even the current Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Louise Glück, pointed out the Nobel imbalance and stated in a New York Times interview, that she was "completely flabbergasted that they would choose a white American lyric poet. It doesn’t make sense. I thought, I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes. So it seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life."

Generally, research shows that racism and sexism are systematic in science and suggest that without active measures to counteract them, the Nobel prize— and other prizes — will remain biased in favor of white men from western and industrialized countries. Globally, there are many reasons for which women are discouraged from entering science or being internationally recognized for their contributions. These include unequal access to education; conscious and unconscious discrimination in promotion, funding, peer review, citation and more; unequal pay; and, often, a disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities. All of that can help to explain why women still make up only around 30% of professional researchers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.


Sources: Elizabeth Gibney, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02988-5 / www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05801-x / Alexandra Alter, https://nyti.ms/33JJjBb

Women as a share of total researchers, 2018 or latest year available


Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics,- Women in Science Fact Sheet Nr. 60 (June 2020)


However, there are regional difference when it comes to the share of female researchers in science (as of 2017): 48.5 % for Central Asia; 45.8 % for Latin America and the Caribbean; 40.9 % for Arab States; 39.0 % for Central and Eastern Europe; 32.9% for North America and Western Europe; 31.1% for sub-Saharan Africa; 30.0% for World; 25.0% for East Asia and the Pacific; 23.1% for South and West Asia. While acknowledging these regional efforts to minimize the gender imbalance, one must realize that in most parts of the world, women in science are still underrepresented and a long way from receiving international prestigious prizes and being globally recognized albeit their contributions.


Luckily, there are international efforts to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, which are also adopted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For example, The United Nations General Assembly declared11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which promotes the roles that women play in these significant fields. This day extends and encourages the discussion how gender affects careers and access to education. For instance, see the discussion below of Women in Science about their trajectories and challenges.




To find out more about these international efforts for gender equality in science, please visit: www.un.org/en/observances/women-and-girls-in-science-day

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