Gender Equality

The Nobel Peace Prize’s problem with women persists

The Norwegian Nobel Institute’s reply to my critique of this year’s award takes my thoughts to Henrik Ibsen: Be what you are, complete and whole, not a divided, piecemeal soul. (Det som du er, vær fullt og helt, og ikke stykkevis og delt.)

The reply is at times predictable — hiding behind a particular interpretation of the statutes of the prize — and at times irrelevant — pointing out that the Peace Prize has a few more women laureates than any other Nobel Prize.

It is also at times tone deaf, suggesting for example that a Peace Prize Committee made up of four women and one man (the chair!) can’t seriously be criticized on a matter regarding women. (Is this committee structure even legal in Norway, where public committees are supposed to have 40% of each gender?)

But the real problem with the reply is that it ignores the core issue.

As I wrote:

This year’s winners received the prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” While this is a laudable focus, the three laureates have not worked together, they have not contributed to a solution to the same specific conflict, and they do not work in the same organization; the abstractness of their connection is something new.

Because the use of such an abstract connection is done when the prize is given to three women, and because the monetary prize is divided when there are multiple winners, and because the prize this time is divided among three instead of the usual two winners, it gives the impression that the committee is not only finding a way to get more female laureates but finding a way to do it cheaply.

The questions requiring an answer are the following.

  1. Were the three winners nominated from outside, in one nomination, as a group?
  2. Alternatively, did the committee use its legal right to expand the list of nominees, adding some or all of the names of this year’s winners?
  3. If so, did the committee itself construct the unifying theme between this year’s three winners?
  4. Alternatively, did the committee, either itself or through a nomination, start with this worthy cause, and then find the best candidates to represent that cause?

In short, what is the correct description of this year’s process?

Giving the award to three winners may increase the prize’s impact. If this is a goal, perhaps more abstract connections between winners will become common. But this strategy cannot be used only with women, only to occasionally acknowledge their work, and only to improve the embarrassing historical record of the prize.

A Norwegian version of my original essay was published in Dagbladet on October 18, 2011, under the title Nobelkomiteens kvinneproblem and on under the title Kvinner på billigsalg.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute responded to my critique here.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



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