Paucity of women de­val­ues No­bels, say lau­re­ates

Some re­searchers worry that dearth of fe­male lau­re­ates de­val­ues awards. Jack Grove writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Many No­bel prizewin­ners be­lieve that bias against women ex­plains why so few fe­male re­searchers have won science’s top award, a Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion sur­vey has revealed.

As part of a poll of science’s lead­ing fig­ures, the ini­tial re­sults of which were pub­lished last month, about 50 No­bel prizewin­ners in science, medicine and eco­nomics were asked why the list of No­bel lau­re­ates re­mains so over­whelm­ingly dom­i­nated by men.

In re­sults re­leased ahead of the an­nounce­ment of the No­bel prize awards in Stock­holm next week, 17 per cent of re­spon­dents felt that the lack of fe­male lau­re­ates def­i­nitely re­flected bias, while a fur­ther 26 per cent felt that it prob­a­bly did. An­other 33 per cent agreed that it was a pos­si­bil­ity, although 24 per cent ruled out the idea.

Only 6 per cent of win­ners in medicine since 1901 have been women, while the pro­por­tion falls to 2.3 per cent in chem­istry, 1.3 per cent in eco­nomics and 1 per cent in physics, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis con­ducted in 2015, the year in which chemist Youyou Tu was the last fe­male win­ner.

Re­spond­ing to THE’s poll – which cap­tured the views of about one in five liv­ing lau­re­ates – Richard J. Roberts, the English bio­chemist who won the 1993 No­bel Prize in Medicine, said he was con­cerned that fe­male sci­en­tists re­ceived “short shrift” re­gard­ing the per­cep­tion of their con­tri­bu­tion to­wards a dis­cov­ery.

“Ros­alind Franklin and many more women have had to take a back seat when the No­bel prizes are awarded,” said Sir Richard, who be­lieved that women are of­ten pushed off the No­bel short­list (limited to a max­i­mum of three peo­ple) when judges de­cide who should get credit for a spe­cific body of re­search.

“There are many, many can­di­dates for each No­bel prize, with many more sci­en­tists and in­ter­ested staff [now] lay­ing claim to a sin­gle con­tri­bu­tion high­lighted by the No­bel prize,” ex­plained Sir Richard. “I shared my No­bel prize with one other per­son but there could have been a cou­ple more peo­ple on the ticket.”

Peter Agre, who won the No­bel Prize in Chem­istry in 2003, said that the long list of over­looked women high­lighted the “prej­u­dice” and “short-sight­ed­ness” of pre­vi­ous No­bel pan­els.

Pro­fes­sor Agre, di­rec­tor of the Johns Hop­kins Malaria Re­search In­sti­tute, listed physi­cists Lise Meit­ner, some­times known as the “Ger­man Marie Curie”, and Deb­o­rah S. Jin as women who should have won.

How­ever, science is now “past this sort of blind­ness”, said Pro­fes­sor Agre. It now needed to ad­dress “the more fun­da­men­tal prob­lem of the par­tic­i­pa­tion and recog­ni­tion of women and mi­nori­ties in all of the sciences”, he said.

“Five women shared the No­bel prize[s] in 2009, so I think the story will soon be very dif­fer­ent,” said Pro­fes­sor Agre. Just 17 women have ever won a No­bel prize in science or medicine, with most of the 48 fe­male win­ners recog­nised in the peace and lit­er­a­ture cat­e­gories.

One US lau­re­ate, who wished to re­main anony­mous, called the lack of fe­male win­ners an “em­bar­rass­ment to all of science”, but many pointed out that the fault lay in science more gen­er­ally rather than the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize.

One US re­searcher blamed the “sys­tem­atic de­val­u­a­tion of women’s role in science”, while an­other US win­ner said that the prob­lem is “clearly so­ci­etal and one can­not blame sci­en­tists nor sci­en­tific in­sti­tu­tions for the way in which our Western so­ci­eties are or­gan­ised”. An­other US-based win­ner cited the is­sue of “bias at all lev­els of science

[that] di­rectly or in­di­rectly af­fects the No­bel prize de­ci­sion”, while one Is­rael-based win­ner be­moaned a “sys­tem that pro­duces less bril­liant women sci­en­tists”.

Asked whether this lack of fe­male win­ners de­val­ued their own No­bel awards, 38 per cent of lau­re­ates in THE’s poll, which was as­sisted by the Lin­dau Foun­da­tion, replied “some­what”, 25 per cent said “a lit­tle” and 3 per cent said “a lot”, although 35 per cent said “not at all”.

Brian Sch­midt, the as­tro­physi­cist who won the 2011 award in physics, said that un­less more women won in the near fu­ture, “it will de­value them a lot”.

“To some ex­tent, No­bel prizes re­flect the lack of di­ver­sity in the past, but the [per­cent­age] of fe­male win­ners has not im­proved as much as I would ex­pect given the pool of ex­cep­tional dis­cov­er­ies be­ing made by women over the past 25 years,” said Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt, who is now vice-chan­cel­lor of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity.

“I would be deeply dis­ap­pointed if the num­ber of fe­male re­cip­i­ents does not rapidly rise over the com­ing decade,” he added.

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