Where are the female scientists among the Nobel Prize winners?

The scientific community turned its focus this week to the Nobel Committee, as the prizes for significant advances in science were announced.

It is a fantastic time for science, with the world’s imagination seized by the sheer passion and resolve that allow our understanding of nature and the universe to flourish. Still considered by many to be the climax of a career in academia, the Nobel Prize steals the spotlight and, even with other awards now offering larger cash prizes, a rich history and romantic aura still keep this accolade at the pinnacle of success.

This week however, also marks the time that the Nobel Prize comes under fresh scrutiny from critics around the globe. With every year that passes, science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary and, now more than ever, the greatest advancements tend to be the ones with international collaborative efforts involving thousands of individuals. Why then does the prize reserve its honour for a maximum of three individuals?

There is a long history of overlooked contributions. Astrophysicist Martin Rees told BBC News that the observation of gravitational waves “was owed to hundreds of researchers”, and yet only three names are likely to be remembered.

Worryingly, this lack of representation extends beyond the complete acknowledgement of researchers. In the history of the Nobel Prize, only two of 207 Physics Laureates, four of 178 Chemistry Laureates, and 12 of 214 Medicine and Physiology Laureates have been women. Why are there so few female laureates?

It’s not for a lack of trying: Lise Meitner, a major contributor to the discovery of nuclear fission, notably failed to win the award after 48 separate nominations over a period of 28 years. In the US and Europe, those receiving PhDs in science and technology are split roughly 50:50 between genders, however women make up fewer than 20 per cent of professors.

Although the reasons for this apparent gender bias are profound, in the defence of the Nobel committee, there are some arguments which explain the uneven demographics. First, the number of applications to faculty jobs is significantly lower for women: “It has been suggested that women tend to shy away from professions where sheer talent is perceived to be valued over hard work – a category that the sciences fall into,” writes Julianna LeMieux, a senior fellow in Molecular Biology.

Not only this but the lack of female winners gestures to a time when a lack of diversity was more prominent, especially considering that a good proportion of awards are given for breakthroughs that were made decades ago: Peter Higgs’ 2013 win is a fine example of this.

All things considered though, it still sits uncomfortably that it has been over 50 years since the last female winner of the Physics prize and, before Ada E Yonath’s win in 2009, you’d have to go back to 1964 for a female winner of the Chemistry prize. Peter Agre, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, argued that the huge pool of overlooked women shows the “prejudice” and “short-sightedness” of previous Nobel panels.

This pernicious trend is damaging to science and there is evidence to suggest that it reinforces the stereotype that women cannot perform as well as men. Astrophysicist Katie Mack said on Twitter that, “we should keep in mind that demographics of the winners reflect and amplify structural biases.” The need for female role models in STEM subjects is critical to achieving some form of equality for generations to come, and having more female Nobel Prize winners is a perfect way to enact change.

Even though in western society there is a significant movement to eradicate sexism, the remnants still hold firm, and it is the responsibility of all committees granting awards for outstanding contribution in academia to provide us with exemplars of female talent – talent which has been so unfortunately disregarded in the past.

Image: Miki Koren


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