Views on the News: Nobel Prize discrimination
This past week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2019 winners for all seven scientific Nobel Prizes for 2019, with the awards ceremony set to take place on Dec. 10. Of the 12 winners announced, 11 are men and one is a woman, despite the Academy attempting to diversify the Nobel Prize award process. Historically, women have been awarded only 3% of all Nobel Prizes. One physicist at the University of Copenhagen claims that a systematic bias against women accounts for this discrepancy in Nobel Prize awards, with the odds of women being nominated for any prize significantly lower than those for men. How do you view this selection process and lack of women Nobel Prize recipients? How do you see this lack of recognition for women’s achievements in the context of the greater academic community?
Prof. Edward Hackett (SOC)
Women are underrepresented among the recipients of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences (physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, awarded to 616 persons, about 3% of them women) and among recipients of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (awarded to 84 persons since 1969, including 2 women—Elinor Ostrom in 2009 and Esther Duflo in 2019). Why so few? Certain explanations are easy to dismiss: selection committees have long known that women make transformative contributions to science—Marie Sklodowska Curie was awarded the physics prize in 1903 and the chemistry prize in 1911. Aware of various conscious and unconscious biases, award committees have undergone training to redress imbalances. Other factors may be at work: Nobel’s will stated that the prize is to be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” but awarding the prize so soon after a discovery makes it difficult to judge how beneficial that discovery might be, and risks awarding the prize to a discovery that later is found to be in error. In consequence, the prizes are often (but not always) awarded some years—even decades—after completion of the honored work. In 1980, for example, women received 10% or so of the doctoral degrees in chemistry and physics, and in the decades since are comparably underrepresented among the ranks of senior scientists. The long latency from discovery to prize accounts for some of women’s underrepresentation among Nobel laureates, and their slowly rising share of doctorates may eventually make a difference. For me, however, two additional explanations come to mind. First, Nobelists beget Nobelists, and prominent scientists beget prominent scientists: subtle inequalities in the conduct of research may disadvantage women, such as differences in recruitment into high-performing research groups, guidance and mentorship, choice (or assignment) of a promising research problem, access to resources, and encouragement to persist in the face of difficulty. Second, judging that a discovery is important or that a person has “conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” is subjective and open to bias: women’s contributions through work—including work in the home—are systematically undervalued, so why should this not also be true of their work in science? Biases so deeply woven into the fabric of science will not rinse out.
Edward Hackett is a professor of Sociology specializing in social organization and dynamics of science, science and technology studies, sustainable development and social research design and methods.
Prof. Sabine von Mering (GER)
Forget the Nobel. It is high time that we looked for inspiration elsewhere. Of course it is offensive, and now that they have even given Peter Handke — "the Bob Dylan of Genocide Apologists" as Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon wrote in the New York Times — a Nobel for literature they have lost all credibility. We have to look elsewhere for inspiration. For example to The Right Livelihood Award, which is also dubbed the Alternative Nobel. This year's recipients are Greta Thunberg, Aminatou Haidar, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, and Guo Jianmei. Three courageous women and one incredible indigenous leader. Established in 1980, the Right Livelihood Award has a long history of recognizing women and leaders from the majority world. Forget the Nobel.
Sabine von Mering is a professor of German and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and serves as the director of the Center for German and European Studies.
Prof. Keirdrwen Luis
Perhaps you are aware that in 2018 the former secretary of the literary branch of the Nobel academy was accused of 18 accounts of sexual assault (this is also a persistent problem throughout the STEM fields). This is not unconnected. It is a reflection of how those in power think: and believing women acceptable targets for assault or harassment is in line with believing our work to be inferior — and one need not go all the way to assault to participate in this mode of thinking. This is part of seeing women (and people of color, QUILTBAG folk, undocumented people, disabled people, etc.) as possessing less personhood. The problem in the current case is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as lack of recognition by a respected institution like the Nobel prize committee “proves” to the larger community that women do not “deserve” recognition – i.e. that our work is inferior, even if the game is rigged.
Kierdrwen Luis is a lecturer in the Anthropology and the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments specializing in culture theory, women's studies, gender studies, gender theory and nonheternormative sexualities.
Dr. Pnina Geraldine Abir-Am
The low presence of women scientists among the Nobel awardees remains a matter of both disappointment and embarrassment among those seeking to increase gender equality in both science and society. Gender parity had been reached only once, in 2011, when five of 12 Nobel laureates were women. In three years we’ll be celebrating half a century since the passing of affirmative action legislation, (1972) which terminated gender discrimination in admission, hiring, promotion, and so on. So, why has the number of women Nobel laureates remained low, despite a steep rise in the number of women, who now make roughly half of the scientists in some fields, such as biology?
In seeking to answer this question, several arguments can be contemplated. First, considerable confusion prevails as to whether the Nobel Prize is given for a specific discovery (as stipulated in the will of Alfred Nobel who endowed the now famous prize) or for “life achievement”. Since Nobel prizes are often disputed, their committees tend to select awardees with an impressively large record of publications, or a record which can only result from one’s position as director of a big lab (who can put his name on all the output of such a lab). As relative newcomers to science, women rarely get to manage big labs. Large scale managerial duties are often hard to balance with women’s familial responsibilities, which invariably exceed those of men.
Second, the nominators (whether by right, e.g. previous awardees, members of the Swedish Nobel committees and academies, etc. or by occasional invitation) tend to be established individuals who network with other such established colleagues or successful disciples of their own. Hence, nominees often come from these two categories because nominators use the occasion to expand their own influence and/or or the prestige of their institution.
Third, despite significant progress in women’s access to scientific positions in the last decades, gender bias persists, to the effect that women’s contributions are less visible, they tend to be promoted more slowly, and their work tends to be attributed to male collaborators. Changing the culture of science, as a system long dominated by men, remains a major challenge.
Fourth, policy interventions for combatting sexism, including sexual harassment in the work-place, have been slow, inefficient, and limited in their implementation and impact.
This situation is a source of concern because scientific progress is key to social & economic welfare; the persistence of gender inequality in science, as reflected in the Nobel disparities, sends a negative signal about the prospects of gender equality in society at large.
Dr. Pnina Geraldine Abir-Am is a historian of science, resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center and principal investigator on a National Science Foundation sponsored project, researching epistemic and social injustice in scientific discovery.