The Nobel Prize: Women Welcome, Rarely


Each year the media goes into a flurry over the list of winners for the Nobel Prize, after all, it is just about the most respected award anyone can win. This year as the hype surrounding the winners dies down, other aspects of the awards come to the attention of some, such as the fact that all the winners this year were men, and that’s not much different from previous years.

In 1901, Alfred Nobel’s set up the Nobel Prize system. He created funds to celebrate the achievements of people in the fields of chemistry, physics, physiology, literature and peace work. It’s been 111 years that this annual event has been occurring and in that time 862 people and organisations have been awarded, but out of those hundreds, only 43 have been women.

This isn’t too surprising when one looks at human history in the 20th century, especially when it comes to the three science prizes.

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries says that in the United States there were anti-nepotism laws active until 1971 which prevented women from working at the same universities as their husbands. Due to the fact that many of these women were married to scientists meant that they would have had limited access to labs. In Europe, they didn’t have a much easier time as women faced challenges when trying to enter higher education institutions.

The Gulf Between the Sexes

That’s not to say that women weren’t winning prizes in the mid-20th century. During the 1940s, women won a higher percentage of prizes than in any other decade before the millennium, that is, until the end of the war.

In the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the world felt like a place that needed strong figures to reinforce the idea that everything was good and everyone was safe. Women were nominated but the committees instead decided to award prices to men who gave the impression of strength.

Stephanie Kovalchik, a statistician at the National Cancer Institute, found that during the ‘70s and ‘80s that while women were participating in the sciences more; the number of Nobel Prizes they were winning did not go up, a problem which continues to this day for a simple reason: the nomination process.

Women’s contributions to science have become increasingly obvious in recent years, but to be considered for a Nobel Prize, you have to be nominated which just isn’t happening. Mary Ann Liebert, founder of the Rosalind Franklin Society which has the goal of gaining more awards and nominations for women in the sciences, says, “Men tend not to nominate them, and women don’t nominate themselves. Women need to be more assertive in seeking nominations. I think it’s a major issue.”

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