Where are all of the female winners of Nobel prizes?

by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent

Kassandra Burd

In 2018, Donna Strickland was awarded the Nobel Prize for her outstanding contribution to the field of physics involving the discovery of “optical tweezers.” These optical tweezers are otherwise considered to be high intensity ultrashort light beam pulses that make precise cuts applied to laser micromachining and laser surgery, among other implementations (Billings, 2018).

Reading this impressive news last year, I remember feeling elated by the fact that a woman in STEM has finally attained such a renowned prize, while simultaneously feeling dismayed by my surprise in the first place.

Why was witnessing a woman winning the Nobel Prize such a rarity? Why did her gender stand out more to me than her actual contribution to science?

As of last year, only 51 women have ever won the Nobel Prize compared to 853 men (Elmehed, 2019). The Nobel committee is not ignorant to this discouraging statistic; Göran Hansson, who is the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Nobel Foundation, admitted that they were disappointed by the lack of women who have been awarded the prestigious prize, and that he suspects there are more women who deserve to be under consideration (Cecco, 2018).

Women’s achievements over the years have gained slow recognition compared to men’s achievements, which have gained almost immediate recognition after their discoveries have been founded; yet, many of these findings have been controversial (Hedin, 2014). For instance, Stanley Prusiner won the prize for his explanation of the cause of mad cow disease, while António Egas Moniz won for his development of the lobotomy method in psychosurgery, both of which were disputable feats that were met with skepticism (Hedin, 2014).

Many might argue that the lack of female Nobel Prize winners are due to a vast male majority in STEM fields, however, this is only a partial explanation, and should no longer be considered a justifiable defense. The proportion of women in medicine research in Sweden, for example, is almost 50% (Hedin, 2014). Furthermore, the European Union today holds more women with university degrees than men, and this was also the case for numerous multiple developing countries in the 1990s (Hedin, 2014). Despite this reality, men still occupy more positions of power, which is instrumental in the lack of career advancement for women working in STEM professions.

Another explanation has to do with financial and opportunistic limitations for women who conduct research in STEM fields. To be considered for the Nobel Prize, achievements must be deemed “important” and “groundbreaking,” which initially requires funding and opportunity; unfortunately, women are often overlooked when it comes to these opportunities (Hedin, 2014).

Funding for research is a very competitive endeavor, in which women are recurrently at a disadvantage. Because men are often awarded funding in conventional areas of research more often, many women choose to specialize in specific areas of their discipline that are less competitive in the hopes of receiving funding for their research, as well as continue working in their chosen field (Hedin, 2014). Women in these areas who reach extraordinary breakthroughs are frequently met with indifferent attitudes because their findings aren’t viewed as “mainstream.” As a result, research conducted by women in highly specialized STEM fields are not regarded as sufficiently worthy for distinguished recognition.

Nominations for Nobel Prize contenders are often made by the committee as well as university-based institutions, however, scientific academies are also authorized to submit their nominations every year (Hedin, 2014). The majority of individuals in these leadership positions are male, and so they are usually inclined to nominate other males due to their similitude and relatability. Moreover, submission of Nobel Prize nominations are often times through personal connections, which maintains the status quo and preserves a distorted social structure that denies women their rightful place in the public eye (Hedin, 2014).

In circumstances where men and women work together on a project, men are typically rewarded for their work, while women’s contributions are neglected and ignored. For example, Lise Meitner published an article on nuclear fission, but credit was given to her male supervisor when he later won the prize himself. Furthermore, Jocelyn Bell, who discovered radio pulsars, was completely overlooked when her professor won the Nobel Prize in physics for her breakthrough (Paul, 2018). Chien-Shiung Wu is another scientist who played a major role in debunking the “law of conservation of parity” in physics, but was never acclaimed for her work; alternatively, her male collaborators won the Nobel Prize for their own involvement in the discovery of this finding (Paul, 2018). Unfortunately, these are just a few examples, as there are many more women who were, and continue to be, disregarded for their efforts.

Undeniably, the Nobel Prize committee and its affiliated institutions are constructed in a way that promotes inequitable and unjust practices when it comes to contributions made by women in STEM fields. It is imperative that we strive for a society in which women’s achievements are recognized and acknowledged. There is no excuse for this shameful underrepresentation of women, who obtain little to no access to the spotlight when it comes to their tireless work in front of or behind the scenes. I sincerely hope that in the future we can live in a society where a woman’s successes and accomplishments aren’t considered rare and unexpected.

Moreover, I hope that when there are more women being recognized for their triumphs, we will be able to focus more on the information relevant to her extraordinary discoveries instead of merely her gender. With increased recognition for women’s achievements, slow progress is better than no progress; however, if we want to hasten advancement in the sciences, maths, and beyond, it is time to start speeding things up and implementing the actions required to highlight women’s achievements.

Bibliography

Billings, L. (2018, October 02). “Optical Tweezers” and Tools Used for Laser Eye Surgery Snag
Physics Nobel. Retrieved from
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/optical-
tweezers-and-tools-used-for-laser-eye-surgery-snag-physics-nobel1/

Cecco, L. (2018, October 03). Female Nobel prize winner deemed not important enough for
Wikipedia entry. Retrieved from
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/oct/03/
donna-strickland-nobel-physics-prize-wikipedia-denied

Hedin, M. (2014). A Prize for Grumpy Old Men? Reflections on the Lack of Female Nobel
Laureates. Gender & History, 26(1), 52–63. doi:10.1111/1468–0424.12051

Nobel Prize awarded women. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/lists/
nobel-prize-awarded-women/

Paul, A. (2018, October 07). Five women who missed out on the Nobel prize. Retrieved from
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/oct/07/five-women-the-nobel-prize-missed