How This Year’s Nobel Prize Season Let Us Down

As a kid, I never thought about my gender when I said I wanted to be a doctor. I never thought twice about having two male pediatricians and lack of female representation on my school’s Career Day. I just assumed the doors were wide open for me. Gender equality is basically here, right? After all, with most medical school applicants being female, a female doctor isn’t as wild of a concept as it used to be. On top of that, the number of women receiving doctorates in the U.S. has doubled between 1987 and 2017, with women surpassing men in terms of earned doctoral and master’s degrees. Even better, the biggest strides were in computer science and mathematics, which are notoriously male-dominated.

So, with all of this progress on gender equality in academia, why was only one woman awarded a Nobel Prize this year?

The Nobel Prize is probably the most prestigious international award given to people who have made the biggest impact in their respective field. The Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, decides it each year, and each recipient is awarded with a medal along with the title, “laureate,” which is a fancy word for Nobel Prize recipient. There are prizes awarded in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences.

There have been a couple years where no Nobel Prizes were awarded, such as during the World Wars. Generally, they’ve been given out in each category since 1901. Since its conception, about 950 people and 24 organizations have received a Nobel Prize.

Can you guess how many of those were women? It’s probably lower than you think (or at least its lower than what I thought). Including this year’s winners, there are only 53 female Nobel laureates. This means that women make up less than 6 percent of the total prize winners. This would not be so bad considering the 20-year lag between when the research was conducted and when the prize is typically awarded, but the distribution doesn’t improve much in more recent events. Between 2001-2019, only 24 women have received the prize compared to around 200 male laureates, which is right around 12 percent.

This “lag” phenomenon especially shows in the physics, chemistry, medicine and the economics sciences categories. It’s used to explain why women weren’t conducting research 20 to 50 years ago on the caliber of Nobel Prize-worthiness. In reality, it is more of a reflection on the toxic gender bias that persists in STEM fields. While this lag plays a part, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The biggest disparity is seen in the physics category, of which women make up 20 percent of doctoral degrees. Only three women have been honored: Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.

The half-century between each prize is not indicative of a lack of female-led discoveries. It points to a larger problem where women were and still are passed up for promotions, awards, opportunities, research funding, higher pay and publications in STEM fields. There’s also the “Matilda Effect,” which is the phenomenon of which female scientists’ accomplishment are overshadowed or attributed to male advisers and colleagues. This was the case with astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery as a graduate student. She found a new type of star, the pulsar, which won a Nobel Prize in Physics to which her graduate adviser and his colleague were instead awarded in 1974.

I am not bringing out my pitchfork to riot the Nobel Prize committee, but I am using the gender disparity in awards to highlight the persistent sexism in STEM fields. While there have been major improvements in recent years, there are still obstacles in receiving positions in labs and research funding that female researchers face. These obstacles add up, especially in terms of awards and are hindering intelligent women in their pursuit of changing the world.

Unfortunately, this process doesn’t begin after graduating. Girls in grade school are inherently taught that mathematics and science are for boys, while girls are better at reading and writing. The lack of female role models can discourage young girls from pursuing education or careers in fields seen as “boyish,” such as computer science and physics.

Young women who aspire to pursue different paths after graduation need to know that every door is actually open to us. As a female STEM student, I can speak for several of us in saying that we want to be treated on the merit of our work, not on our gender identity (especially not after working our butts off to get where we want to be).

I know that gender bias is still very much alive in medicine despite big strides. It’s not going to impact my career decision as it shouldn’t impact yours. No matter your race, ethnicity or gender identity, you are just as deserving as your peers to pursue your passions without any obstacles.

By next Nobel Prize season, I hope the roster is more diversified to give young girls who are interested in STEM more role models to look up to. They’re out there. You just have to start listening to them.