July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Is the under-representation of women exclusive to the Nobel prizes, or is it a symptom of wider issues in STEM and academia?

This year’s Nobel Prizes highlight a wealth of new achievements, but call attention to a well-worn question: where are all the women? The 2017 awards bring the sum total of winners to only 48 women compared to 844 men, with most of the STEM specialisms appearing particularly dire.

In terms of female winners, Peace and Literature come first with sixteen and fourteen, respectively. In stark contrast, Chemistry has four, Physics two, and Economics trails with just one prize awarded to a woman, Elinor Ostrom (and only in 2009). The Physiology or Medicine award somewhat bucks the trend with twelve women laureates, including the most recent in any category, Tu Youyou, in 2015. Overall the handful of women achieving Nobel Prizes provides a concerning insight to disadvantages women face in academia, and particularly STEM.

Göran Hansson, vice chair of the Nobel Foundation board of directors, makes some attempt to justify the gender divide, noting that “we have to wait until they have been verified and validated, before we can award the prize. There was an even larger bias against women then. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.”

The “time lag” argument seems a fair one, considering the low number of female researchers in past decades. Unfortunately, this means we could be waiting a while longer, as only around 20% of UK physics PhD candidates were female between 2004-2010, and of the STEM subjects only biology shows a reasonably even gender balance. So is the issue exclusive to the Nobel prizes, or is it representative of wider issues in STEM and academia?

Sexism within science, both overt and subliminal, is a common topic. From girls being pushed away from science or feeling isolated in boy-heavy science classes, to the “old boys’ club” atmosphere of many science departments, is it surprising to see a lack of women at the top of science? Follow any female scientist on Twitter and you’ll soon see plenty of conversations about creepy co-workers and dismissive superiors, pointing to one reason many women find themselves moving away from their scientific passions.

There are also swathes of stories about female scientists not receiving due credit, such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose discovery of pulsars earned the 1974 Physics Nobel prize … for her male supervisor and co-worker. Just have a look at #ThanksForTyping, which highlighted the number of wives and secretaries whose intense academic work was often downgraded in book credits to that one task.

Could this mean that women’s work is being recognised, but not the women themselves? The Nobel prize is never shared between more than, at the most, three separate scientists. But how are these chosen few selected, and what does it say about the academic culture in which we find ourselves?

Medicine and Physiology laureate Tu Youyou provides an excellent case study. There was very little formal recognition of her work within her home country of China, where the culture leans towards the recognition of a team over the individual. Could it be that the West’s focus on individual success leads to the disappearance of women and minority groups from academic recognition?

Although this article has focused on the gender imbalance, it is worth noting that in terms of racial diversity, less than 2% of Nobel laureates have been black, and only around 8% of Nobel prizes have gone to researchers from Asian countries. Again, we might hope to see changes in the future as the Nobel prizes catch up with current work, but I think that, as with sexism in science, denying science’s race problem would be wilfully naïve.

In the end I’m not sure we can pass off responsibility for solving academia’s biases to the Nobel prize committees. Indeed, perhaps they serve as a useful reflection on the harsh realities of the STEM world. How can we expect the Nobel prizes to be appropriately diverse when the fields they recognise are so frequently not?

Bridie Kennerly is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Image: The 1911 Solvay Conference, Benjamin Couprie / Wikimedia Commons