Gender Equality

The year the Nobel Prize forgot to ignore women

Norwegian professor May-Britt Moser is literally a game changer. Today, she will receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine, and the game she is changing is about women in science.

Here’s how it goes. Ask anyone to name two famous women scientists. Most of them can name one — usually the same one. But for many of us, naming two is too hard.

Norwegians today are united in their hope that this game will now change, that the difficult challenge will be to name three, but that naming two will be easy since soon everyone will hit on Moser’s name as quickly as they can say “Madame Marie Curie.”

This game highlights how rare women scientists are. Recruiting women to science is one of our great challenges — and we have to solve it. We need more scientists and engineers, we need to draw from the whole population when filling those positions, and we need the powerful, quality-enhancing benefits of diversity in the workforce.

The face of excellence sports a beard

More women might be attracted to these fields if they could see the potential for success, perhaps in the form of a little better gender balance in prestigious prizes, so that the face of excellence doesn’t always seem to be wearing a beard. And while the Nobel prizes could have a colossal impact if the committees decided they cared to level things out, they’ve made it perfectly clear that they don’t.

Only 10% of the winners of Nobel Prize in Medicine have been women. In chemistry, there are only four women among 106 laureates and in physics, it’s just two of 199.

Perhaps the Nobel Committees have an overly rigid interpretation of the pronoun in the last sentence of Alfred Nobel’s will, where he writes, “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.”

The committees apparently don’t know that back then, in the olden days, there was something called generic third person pronouns.

Prizes with culture of ignoring women

The Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, an institution which in other contexts also struggles to see the work of women. This fall, for example, they managed to give every single one of their myriad of internal prizes to men.

In their official public comment on this embarrassment, the Dean of Research at Karolinska notes that “The results [of the prize committees] with respect to gender balance have started an internal discussion about these processes.” I bet they have!

Committees hide behind ideas of excellence and objectivity and fail to sieze the opportunity to show social — and scientific! — responsibility.

The apparent indifference of the Nobel Committees to the work of women gets amplified because of the prestige of the prizes. The Netherlands’ Ministry of Education, Culture and Science recently took a public thrashing because their much-anticipated Vision for research 2025: choices for the future was illustrated with pictures of 16 prominent Dutch researchers — every one a man.

These 16 were the Netherlands’ Nobel laureates, although the Ministry didn’t find it necessary to mention that anywhere in the document as an explanation for only using the pictures of men when talking about the future.

Perhaps that is because research careers in the Netherlands really are mostly for men. It’s just about the worst country in Europe when it comes to the number of female professors and the Dutch research council in a high profile event last year awarded millions to six of the country’s best researchers — no women allowed!

Prizes and role models

Even in seemingly more enlightened countries, such as Norway, prize committees struggle to see the work of women. The Abel Prize in Mathematics is awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and now has 14 laureates, none of whom are women.

The Norwegians are in good company: the Fields Medal of the International Mathematical Union added this year the first woman to its list of 55 laureates; the French Academy of Science’s Jacques Herbrand Prize has been given to 11 mathematicians, only one of whom was a woman.

Maybe it’s true that there are few women doing research in mathematics; a bit under 10% of the members of the mathematics section of the French Academy of Sciences are women. Some other international academies have fewer, some have more.

The problem is not just that women receive prizes in lower numbers than we could expect given their presence in various fields — i.e., they are less likely to get a prize than a man. The problem is that committees hide behind ideas of excellence and objectivity and fail to sieze the opportunity to show social — and scientific! — responsibility.

Changing the face of science

Prizes can be a tool to change the face of science, to make it more inclusive and thereby more successful. No one is suggesting that excellence should not be the primary criterion.

But absolute excellence is not the only factor that matters in selecting winners. There are always more worthy candidates. And these winners become role models for early-career researchers and schoolchildren — who in turn might choose to take on the task of using science and research as tools to make life better for all of us.

Prize committees could have a tremendous impact on society by providing more role models for under-represented groups.

The various Nobel committees must do their part to attract more women to science. They generally don’t. Let’s hope that this year they simply didn’t forget; let’s hope that the Nobel Prize committees are now starting to work harder to remind us that science benefits from diversity.

May-Britt Moser is a world-class role model and she is changing the game. But she shouldn’t have to do it alone.

This piece was also published at The Huffington Post – UK.

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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