Nobel Prize 2020: From prizewinners to members of committees, women underrepresented since inception of awards

The Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to women 57 times between 1901 and 2020. Only one woman, Marie Curie, has been honoured twice, with the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry

FP Staff October 08, 2020 16:17:04 IST
Nobel Prize 2020: From prizewinners to members of committees, women underrepresented since inception of awards

A nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine. image credit: WIkipedia

On Wednesday, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry for their groundbreaking work in gene editing.

Charpentier and Doudna are the first all-woman team to receive a Nobel prize in science and become the sixth and seventh women to be honoured for their research in chemistry since the first awards in 1901.

On Tuesday, the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded jointly to Roger Penrose from Britain, Reinhard Genzel from Germany, and Andrea Ghez from the US for making discoveries that have shaped our modern understanding of the universe and black holes.

Ghez is only the fourth woman to win the Nobel in physics, following Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, and Donna Strickland in 2018.

Last year, in 2019, almost all of the Nobel prizes in science were awarded to men.  As per NPR, between 1901 and 2019, 219 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. Only 12 of them were women, which is about 5.5 percent.

Meanwhile, in physics, of the 213 people who have won until last year, only three (less than two percent) have gone to women, while only five women have ever won the prize in chemistry.

In 2018, when Donna Strickland won in physics and Frances Arnold won in chemistry, it was considered a banner year for females in Nobel Prize winners.

Female researchers have come a long way over the past century but there's overwhelming evidence which points at the lack of representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

Here are some statistics that depict the disparity in representation:

The Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to women 57 times between 1901 and 2020. Only one woman, Marie Curie, has been honoured twice, with the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

This means that 56 women in total have been awarded the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 2020, as per the Nobel Prize website.

Nobel Prize 2020 From prizewinners to members of committees women underrepresented since inception of awards

Nobel Prizes to women, 1901-2019 Ill. Niklas Elmehed/@NobelPrize

As of 7 October, 2020, four women have won so far in physics, seven in chemistry, 12 in Medicine or Physiology, 15 in Literature, 17 have won the Nobel Peace Prize and two have won the 'The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel'.

Even though the recent wins by three women in the field of science is a welcomed step, it does not change the reality for many women in academia and science who, as per studies, do not earn as much as their male peers, don't get to publish as much as their male peers, and don't hold positions of power.

A 2017 National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics report showed that while white men make up only one-third of the US population, they constitute at least half of all scientists.

Indeed, there might be multiple reasons at play here for these dismal numbers: poverty, scarcity of role models and mentors, bias in a mostly male-dominated field, where women lack a critical mass of representation and are often viewed as tokens or outsiders.

Although, in the recent past, steps have been taken to improve the representation of women in STEM fields by focusing on countering these stereotypes, but there is still a long way to go.

Not only as prize winners, but women are also underrepresented in institutions that select the winners each year.

On Nobel committees, women are in short supply

Marie Curie, Mother Teresa, and Malala are among the just five percent of women Nobel laureates. But women are also heavily underrepresented in the institutions that select the prizewinners each year.

The Nobels for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, and economics are all awarded in Sweden by separate committees, while the peace prize laureate is selected by a committee in Norway.

Both Scandinavian countries pride themselves on their reputations as champions of gender equality – yet on the Nobel committees, women make up only a quarter of members.

With the exception of the peace prize committee, all are also currently headed by men.

Would more women on the committees make a difference in the number of women laureates?

For Olav Njolstad, secretary of the peace committee in Oslo, the answer is: probably.

Since 2001, 24 women have won Nobel prizes, compared to 11 in the two decades leading up to 2000.

"It is not illogical to think that there is a connection between the increasing feminisation of the committees and the growing number of female laureates," he told AFP.

While progress has been made in recent years, the economics prize committee has just two women out of 11 members, chemistry has three out of 10, medicine has four out of 18, and physics has only one out of seven.

Even the literature committee, with two out of seven, is still far from gender parity.

Eva Olsson, the lone woman on the physics committee, says "role models are important in order to inspire more young female students to study physics."

But she insists that discrimination is not the issue, and says her committee's work is not affected by gender ratios.

"Considering the fact that the proportion of women is low in the discipline of physics, I am not surprised that the proportion of women is lower than men," Olsson told AFP.

Appointments to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences are also for life so moving the needle is a slow process, unlike the Norwegian committee where members are elected for six-year terms.

Only 15 percent of Royal Swedish Academy of Science members are currently women, but Eva Mork, the first woman to sit on the economics prize committee in 2011, noted it is "getting more and more women."

As for literature, which might be considered a less male-dominated field, the Swedish Academy counts only five women among 18 members, though two seats are currently vacant due to recent deaths.

Author Kristina Lugn, who passed away in May, was to have sat on this year's Nobel committee. Of the seven on the Academy's Nobel committee this year, two are women.

"Our aim is gender balance... In putting together the committee a number of aspects have to be considered, and a perfect equilibrium has not been possible," the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary, Mats Malm, told AFP.

The Swedish Academy's first woman permanent secretary, Sara Danius, stepped down in 2018 amid a scandal that tore the institution apart.

With inputs from AFP

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