International Women's Day: The missing women Nobel Laureates point to a deeply entrenched gender bias amid highest achievers

  • According to the Nobel Prize website, of the 904 unique individuals to have been awarded the Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences between 1901 and 2018, only 51 are women

  • In fact the track record of women earning recognition in the field of science and academia is particularly bleak

  • This does begs the question that why women don't even come up to 10 percent of those who received the Nobel prize for their

International Women's Day | The one thing about making an annual global event entirely about women is that at least once a year, the global discourse is squarely driven towards the real challenges women face in their day to day life. From pay parity to the fight for a gender-balanced workspace to how women leaders in their field still find it difficult to get equal recognition in a largely male-centric world. The world still doesn’t do a great job of recognising women's contributions in fields like science, innovation, research and global policymaking.

Readers may think that statement is overly harsh? Then sample this: When Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her research on economic governance in 2009, it was the first (and so far, the only) time a woman won the prestigious prize for Economics. That prize has existed for nearly 50 years. Only three women have ever won a Nobel for Physics and five have been awarded a prize for Chemistry — two of the oldest categories for which the prize is awarded — and the statistical precedent of a woman receiving the prize is less than 6 percent of the total number of unique individuals who have received the prize.

That’s right!

According to the Nobel Prize website, of the 904 unique individuals to have been awarded the Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences between 1901 and 2018, only 51 are women. Only one woman, Marie Curie, has been honoured twice with the prize till date. And only 23 of these 51 women have not had to share the prize, either in recognition of collaborating colleagues or with multiple winners in the same category.

 International Womens Day: The missing women Nobel Laureates point to a deeply entrenched gender bias amid highest achievers

Representational image, www.nobelprize.org

Marie Curie, the first ever woman to receive her Nobel (and till date the only woman to get it twice) only received a quarter of the prize money. The prize was divided between Antoine Henri Becquerel, who got half the award (“in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity”), and Pierre and Marie Curie, who split the other 50 percent — meaning they each received a quarter of the prize.

Sixty years later, Maria Goeppert Mayer became the second woman ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, and she too, received a quarter of it as the lion’s share was awarded to Eugene Paul Wigner (“for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles”), while Mayer and J Hans D Jensen split the remaining half “for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure.”

Only four women of African origin have received the award so far and never for their contribution to science and innovation. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee (2015, Liberia) and Wangari Maathai (Kenya, 2004) have received the prize in Peace category, while Toni Morrison (US, 1993), the first black woman ever to receive the prize, won it in the Peace category. This is not to say the contributions made in the fields of Literature and Peace are any less remarkable than the other fields, but the statistic simply points out how science and research continue to be male-dominated fields, at least as far as it comes to earning global recognition.

In fact, the track record of women earning recognition in the field of science and academia is particularly bleak. According to The Harvard Business Review, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal, has had just one female winner till date: the late Maryam Mirzakhani. And evidence suggests female academics are also less likely to receive grant funding due to gender bias. And prizes still remain a highly visible indicator of recognition in broader public opinion, sometimes which also include public policymakers and those who make decisions about scientific grants and other support. The prize money too almost always matters: each Nobel prize winner, for example, is awarded over $1 million.

The subject matter is so complex and open to interpretation that no direct research on the effect a prize has on women researchers, the means they have access to, and their motivation can be done. Some would simply argue that in case of a prestigious award like Nobel, quality wins over quantity and whoever does it gets it, irrespective of gender or race. The science speaks for itself; does it really matter who did it; and the best man wins (note the irony) is common adages used to superficially explain the gap in recognition given to women.

Nevertheless, the missing women Nobel Laureates in the humongous and elaborate list of luminaries does beg the question that why women — who roughly make up half of the world's population — don't even come up to 10 percent of those who received the Nobel prize for their "immense contribution to humanity." Are women generally underachievers? Or they simply lack appreciation, recognition and the means?

An article in The Guardian reviewed the possible reasons.  "This scarcity of women (and black and minority ethnic men, for that matter) is often put down to the time lag between work being carried out and being rewarded with the highest accolade in science. The awards, it is argued, reflect the make-up of academic institutions way-back-when." The article attributes this to an increasing approach of "cautiousness" adopted by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is responsible for selecting the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates by the terms of Alfred Nobel's will.

But the list of laureates didn't look so conservative since the beginning.

The article notes that in recent years, the average age of recipients has been steadily climbing. Between 1931 and 1940 the average age of physics laureates was 41. It has risen steadily since, and so far this decade, it is 68.

Possibly, the full impact of discovery, or a movement, may not be visible immediately. But this also means that younger scientists who are still active, a greater proportion of whom are women than it used to be, miss out on the honour.

Another science journalist, writing in Forbes, attributes the missing women Nobel laureates to what she calls the classic case of a "pipeline problem" in science. "It’s a corollary to the oft-cited pipeline problem in science: stuff happens along the pipeline from postdoc to Nobel contender. That stuff is a more complex brew than anything I ever worked with in the lab — it's choices, it's circumstances, it's bias, it's competition."

And her argument rings true given the folks deciding the Nobel Prize behind the curtains, are people, after all. Biases, political inclinations, capriciousness are all human vices, and so far I haven't seen any evidence that absolves any particular group of humans from these, decisively. Even Academy Awards (aka Oscars) have been criticised for pandering to an all-white male set of dignitaries, by a similarly constituted panel.

An article in The New Yorker discusses this at length. It notes that nominations flow in from across the world, and there is considerable debate about who ought to get credit for which discovery. But there is also a discussion about what message is sent by choosing to honour one scientist or discovery over another. This means that women researchers, who data shows, anyway find it more difficult to get grants for research and are more likely than their male peers to have their applications reviewed by reviewers with less expertise, means that there is just a higher chance they would miss out on the accolade even if things are presumably fair and square at the Nobel selection level.

A nomination for a Nobel Prize can undoubtedly open doors. And when, year after year, the demography of winners perpetuates an entrenched stereotype, questions will arise whether one of the world's most respected accolades is reasonably reflecting the achievements of women across the world. What needs answering is whether this is really the image the Nobel committee wishes to project to the world.

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Updated Date: Mar 08, 2019 11:30:08 IST


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