Prize and prej­u­dice

De­spite their no­table dis­cov­er­ies in science, women ac­count for only 5% of win­ners of the No­bel prize. It di­min­ishes them – and the award it­self

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - John.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Are the No­bel prizes sex­ist? If they are, then per­haps some are more sex­ist than oth­ers. The prize for lit­er­a­ture has been awarded to 14 women and 95 men. The peace prize has gone to 16 women and 81 men. Of the oth­ers, fe­male lau­re­ates num­ber 12 in medicine/phys­i­ol­ogy, four in chem­istry, two in physics, and just one in eco­nomics.

Taken as a whole, just 5 per cent of the 911 win­ners have been fe­male, and in our opin­ion pages this week, Janet Shi­b­ley Hyde, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Re­search on Gen­der and Women at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sinMadi­son, con­sid­ers why this might be.

The ar­gu­ments Hyde ex­plores in­clude stereo­types about gen­der and “bril­liance”, the par­tic­u­lar promi­nence of men in math­e­mat­i­cal fields, the sti­fled as­pi­ra­tions of young girls, and the un­doubted bias that per­sists, not least in aca­demic ca­reer struc­tures them­selves.

Whether the blame for these is­sues can be laid at the door of the No­bel prize com­mit­tee is an­other mat­ter. But it’s prob­a­bly true to say that the No­bel prize has a far greater in­flu­ence on science and the way it is con­ducted than sim­i­lar hon­ours in other walks of life.

Aca­demic suc­cess is mea­sured in terms of pres­tige as much as any­thing else, and there is a breed of No­bel-ob­sessed sci­en­tist who will do what­ever it takes to max­imise their chances, jump­ing on any promis­ing new area and throw­ing the full re­sources of a large lab at get­ting to the No­bel-wor­thy dis­cov­ery first.

This may be a good thing if it ad­vances science in the most ef­fi­cient, pro­duc­tive way pos­si­ble. But does it? And is this most of­ten a male trait, with women more likely to get tram­pled than do the tram­pling?

There are also tech­ni­cal ques­tions about the way the No­bel prize is awarded, which are at least tan­gen­tially re­lated to gen­der.

For ex­am­ple, a No­bel prize can be awarded to a max­i­mum of three peo­ple. Fair enough, you might say; a prize that’s shared be­tween 50 peo­ple could never carry the pres­tige that’s in­her­ent to a No­bel’s power. But in an age of ever-in­creas­ing com­plex­ity in the sciences, when ground­break­ing work is of­ten car­ried out by large and mul­ti­ple teams, is the right bal­ance be­ing struck in de­cid­ing who gets the gar­lands? Is un­con­scious bias play­ing any part?

An­other rule of the game is that a No­bel can­not be awarded posthu­mously. There is no rea­son why this would dis­crim­i­nate against one sex or the other, but as Hyde points out it does mean that some­one as wor­thy as Ros­alind Franklin was au­to­mat­i­cally dis­missed by the No­bel com­mit­tee when it was con­sid­er­ing who should win the prize for dis­cov­er­ing the struc­ture of DNA.

As an aside, it’s not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous why be­ing hit by a bus on the way home from the lab should pre­vent some­one from be­ing hon­oured for driv­ing on the bound­aries of hu­man knowl­edge – or why one’s de­pen­dants should not ben­e­fit from the size­able cash prize.

If the dead don’t move you, then per­haps the lau­re­ates of the fu­ture will. Ev­ery year, Clar­i­vate An­a­lyt­ics is­sues No­bel pre­dic­tions based on ci­ta­tion vol­umes. It has a good hit rate – 43 pre­vi­ous picks have be­come lau­re­ates over the past 15 years. Of this year’s 22 pre­dic­tions, just one is a wo­man (Yuan Chang, of the Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh School of Medicine).

The ques­tion of how much this mat­ters is one that we put to pre­vi­ous win­ners in the Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion No­bel Lau­re­ates Sur­vey.

The re­sults, re­leased this week, are clear: of the 50 lau­re­ates we spoke to, two-thirds said that the No­bel prize was de­val­ued to a greater or lesser ex­tent by the lack of fe­male win­ners.

As Brian Sch­midt, who won the No­bel Prize in Physics and is vice-chan­cel­lor of Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, puts it: “If the trend con­tin­ues, it will de­value them a lot. No­bel prizes are a lagging in­di­ca­tor, and to some ex­tent re­flect the lack of di­ver­sity in the past.

“That be­ing said, the frac­tion 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. I would be deeply dis­ap­pointed if the frac­tion of fe­male re­cip­i­ents does not rapidly rise over the com­ing decade.”

So what will next week’s an­nounce­ments bring – a stick of Al­fred No­bel’s dy­na­mite, or more of the same?

Of the 50 lau­re­ates we spoke to, two-thirds said that the No­bel prize was de­val­ued to a greater or lesser ex­tent by the lack of fe­male win­ners

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