Previous Nobel Prize winners, including Albert Einstein and Hermann Muller, are acknowledged for making some of the most historic contributions in their respective scientific fields, be that physics, chemistry, medicine and physiology.
There have been female Nobel winners too, such as Jennifer A. Doudna, who won the 2020 chemistry prize “for the development of a method for genome editing”, as well as Françoise Barré-Sinoussi “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus”.
Winners' discoveries have often ushered in significant technological and medical advancements, often changing the ways in which we live, work and cure disease.
But the fact that this year’s winners were all male has yet again reinforced the idea that the coveted award is difficult for a woman to win, and this has been the way for the majority of the Nobel Foundation’s 121-year history, writes Kate Langin in Science, with women among the science laureates in only 18 years of that long history.
However, members of the award-granting committees have now come forward to share the primary reason why women are so often overlooked: “Female nominees for the science prizes remain scarce, despite a doubling in recent years.” And while a doubling of female nominees in recent years seems encouraging on the surface, the percentage of nominees remains far too low for a level-playing field to be established.
For instance, Langin highlights that only 13 per cent of the nominees for physiology or medicine prize were women this year, and 7 to 8 per cent were nominated for the chemistry prize.
“This has been the problem with many high-level and prestigious awards: If [women are] not in the pool, you can’t select them,” argues Jo Handelsman, a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin, who has studied gender bias in the scientific community.
2021’s winners signified a disappointing regression for female scientists, following a remarkable year for women in 2020. For instance, of the eight 2020 science prize winners, three were women. Further, the chemistry Nobel in 2020 went to a pair of women.
“I thought that last year it was … very positive and that maybe there was real change going on, but now we’re back to normal,” said Liselotte Jauffred, a physicist at the University of Copenhagen who has examined the odds of women winning Nobel Prizes.
The need to redress the gender imbalance among the Nobel laureates has “reached a fever pitch in recent years” Langin says, as well as the dearth of people of colour and scientists located outside North America and Europe.
However, there have been changes, with the selection committee broadening the list of people invited to submit nominations, including more women and scientists from all around the world. While selection committees have traditionally been reticent about revealing nominee statistics, citing a statute that nominations must be kept secret for 50 years, Science nonetheless obtained some key data.
“The total number of nominations for a physiology or medicine Nobel jumped from about 350 in 2015 to 874 this year. Over those years, the percentage of female nominees more than doubled, from 5 per cent in 2015 to 13 per cent this year, Langin said.
“The chemistry committee saw a similar increase: At 7 per cent to 8 per cent, female nominees have doubled their share since 2018.
“A representative for the physics committee declined to share exact figures, but wrote in an email, ‘The number of nominated women has increased significantly in the last few years.’”
While such increases are welcomed, Professor Emeritus and President of the Biophysical Society Frances Separovic told Campus Review more changes are required.
“I believe that there is a link with the low nomination rates and the make-up of the Nobel Committee. In recent years, changes to the nomination process have doubled the percentage of women in the nominee pool,” she said.
“For example, the Nobel Committee for Chemistry has co-opted two women members, Professors Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede and Xiaodong Zou, which is a positive step. However, even after the recent increases, just 7.5 per cent of the nominees for the chemistry prize are women.
“The majority of those making nominations are male and we need greater diversity in the nominating pool. But we need to not only nominate more women, we also need to broaden our view of what is worthy of a Nobel prize in the different disciplines.”
One of the two women on the eight-person chemistry committee, Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a biophysical chemist at Chalmers University of Technology. Echoing Separovic’s comments, Wittung-Stafshede says boosting the number of women nominated is critical, and committees could reevaluate, or broaden, their views on what constitutes a “Nobel-worthy discovery”.
“It’s possible we miss certain topics and candidates because we are biased and have a narrow view of what is an important chemistry discovery. We may need to think more outside the normal box,” she said.
Wittung-Stafshede also argues that systemic challenges that women face throughout their careers (eg sexism and child-rearing) can also account for the scarcity of women winning awards, but adds that is not the whole picture.
“That’s kind of a passive way to approach the problem. … We also need to address it ourselves,” she says of the Nobel committees.
Separovic concurs, saying that “we need to increase the diversity of the Nobel Committees, which can be done by co-opting members, and also increase the number of women (~15%) in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selects the Nobel Prize laureates through a majority vote”.
For instance, in 2021, women were still underrepresented in the different committees: the physics committee had seven men and one woman, the chemistry committee comprised six men and two women, and the physiology or medicine committee had the highest proportion of women, with 13 men and five women, still under 50 per cent of male representation.
Asked whether quotas could be useful in addressing the imbalance, Separovic replied:
“The right to submit nominations is covered by statute, but the committee has some leeway in choosing chairs in universities selected by the Academy of Sciences to ensure appropriate distribution over different countries as well as other scientists from whom they may see fit to invite proposals.
“The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences could approach more women and other under-represented groups for nominations so as to encourage greater diversity in nominees. I’d also like to see a system whereby if you submit more than one nomination form (with up to three names) for a Nobel Prize, then the nominations should include more than one gender.”
In an email to Science, Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the physiology or medicine committee and a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute, said addressing the underrepresentation of women in leading academic positions is a struggle that needs to occur.
“Thanks to new recruitments over the last ten years or so, the proportion of women [on the committee] is now similar to the proportion of female full professors at the [institute].”
Asked whether the culture of education in Australian schools could be improved to see more female Nobel Laureates in the future, Separovic agreed and provided an insightful anecdote.
"Certainly, but we need to start well before students reach university to combat stereotypes about gender and intellect,” she said.
“I recently gave a talk at a primary school with an equal mix of boys and girls, but almost all of the questions/answers came from the boys.
“I realised I had to change tack so as to be more inclusive but also let them know that diversity of thought and experience is critical to science. We need more women recognised for their contributions to science and inspire more young people to pursue careers in science.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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