Why was only one of fifteen Nobel laureates female?


So, the Nobel prize winners were announced this week. The Prize for Physics was awarded one half to James Peebles for “theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”, and the other jointly to Michael Major and Didier Queloz for the “discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star”. John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshio jointly took the Chemistry Prize for “the development of lithium-ion batteries”. The “discovery of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability” won William Kaelin Jr., Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza the Prize in Medicine.

Women weren’t even allowed degrees at most institutions

You might have noticed something – there are no women on this list. In fact, this year, of fifteen Nobel laureates, there was only one woman; Esther Duflo, who jointly won the Prize in Economic Sciences for an “experimental approach for alleviating global poverty”. This isn’t unusual – in the history of the Nobel Prize, the science prizes have only been received by 22 women, and two of them were Marie Curie. In the same period of time, men have received the same prizes a startling 677 times.

The science Nobel prizes have only been won by 22 women

So why? Maybe women are just worse at science. Maybe women are just significantly worse (30 times worse, if we’re to extrapolate the Nobel statistics) at the scientific method, because of hormones, or the size of their brains, or something. That’s the belief that would drive eminent physicist Alessandro Strumia to announce to a crowd at CERN that there are fewer women in physics because of differences in IQ, and that any attempt to change that is “cultural Marxism”.

But studies have shown repeatedly that most cognitive differences between the sexes are either non-existent, or so slight as to be non-existent. Seeing as the cornerstone of the scientific method is modification of hypotheses if the data doesn’t support them, maintaining the belief that women are inherently worse at science seems a bit, well, un-scientific.

We have to look for another explanation, and one can be found in the societal barriers that have historically faced women in STEM or girls looking into it. When the Nobel prize was founded, in 1901, women weren’t even allowed to receive degrees at most institutions, so it’s unsurprising they had limited opportunity to conduct the kind of research that receives a Nobel prize. These barriers still exist, although in less obvious ways. There’s the issue of workplace bias, not to mention the burden of childcare and other family responsibilities falling largely on women. There’s the enormous barrier of perception; girls as young as primary school age are aware of the stereotypes that science and maths are for boys.

The Nobel prizes, despite their illustrious reputation, are just one group of scientific prizes, awarded by just one committee of (unsurprisingly, mostly male) judges, in one country, once a year. They are not some kind of divine commendation of good science; you only have to be told the story of Rosalind Franklin to see that. What they are, however, is a symptom of a wider issue. Fewer girls go into STEM in the first place, and women leave the profession at a much higher rate than men. Fewer scientists mean fewer Nobel laureates.

Women leave the profession at a much higher rate than men

The question of how to fix that, and if it needs fixing at all, is a fraught one, and there’s unlikely to be a simple answer. One thing is certain, though, and that’s that the future depends entirely on what each of us does every day. So, girls in STEM, go: encourage younger girls who are interested in science, and join Durham University Women in STEM, and when you sit in your fourth 9am of the week, know that you’re contributing, in some small but important way, to science working the way science works best: when it works for everybody.

Know that you’re contributing, in some small but important way, to science

Image by Ken Berean via Flickr

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