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Why Don't Women Win More Nobel Prizes In Science?


On Tuesday, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. These recipients, Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish, “are credited with detecting the waves that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago and described as ‘ripples’ in the fabric of the universe," according toFortune. A little more about these recipients? They’re American. They work at MIT. And, oh yeah, they’re all men. (But we could’ve guessed that.)

Counting these three recipients, 206 people total have won the Physics Nobel Prize — 204 of those recipients were men. Only two women have won the Physics Nobel Prize. (And, as Fortune noted, these women didn’t even receive the full prize—Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer each received “a quarter of a prize.”)

Looking beyond the Physics prize to the Nobel Prize in general, things don’t look much better for women. As Scientific American notes, “only 17 women have been awarded a science Nobel Prize since its inception in 1901. That amounts to three percent of all prizewinners.”

Allison, a sophomore majoring in Computer Science at the University of Michigan College of Engineering told Her Campus that she's not all that surprised by the lack of representation, given how often she's one of the few women in her classes. 

 “I can’t really say I’m surprised by how few women have won the Nobel Prize," she said. "I am frequently one of five or six girls in classes of 100, so I’ve learned not to think about ratios too much. I figure I’m doing what I love, and as more women begin to do the same, the ratios will sort themselves out.”

Like Allison notes, the lack of female Nobel Prize recipients is grim and disheartening, but not really surprising. We already know that there is a tremendous bias against women in the STEM fields. Perhaps some of this bias lies directly in the Swedish Academy of Science, which awards the prize, but it’s likely that the majority of this bias is systemic.

Scientific American explains that “in human societies, it always seems as if men, from time immemorial, have done everything possible to deny women access to knowledge and power, which are often linked.”

Of course, in our society, you could argue that women finally do have the same access to education as men. However, this is still a relatively new privilege. As Scientific American states, “although girls are reclaiming the world of science little by little, it will take several generations before they accede to positions of power beyond the administrative level.”

Although the bias against women in STEM has historical roots, it's possible that we've all internalized it more than we think. Scientific American explains that 67 percent of men and 66 percent of women still believe that women lack the capacity to become “first-rate scientists.” They also note that, when you know there’s bias against you, you tend to underperform. That means that men automatically have an advantage over women: when men succeed in STEM, it’s because they’re expected to, whereas when women succeed in STEM, they’re perceived to be defying all odds.

Lili, a pre-med sophomore at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the women’s health club WORTH, told Her Campus that she is "both disappointed and inspired by the underrepresentation of women among Nobel laureates" as a college woman in STEM. 

"I feel strongly that women deserve to be recognized for their efforts in such a dynamic field, and for me personally, knowing that we are in the minority makes me want to work that much harder to provide meaningful contributions to medicine," Lili said. 

Times Higher Education conducted a survey of about fifty Nobel prizewinners, asking them why they believe so few women have won the prize: 76 percent of those surveyed agreed that there was at least a possibility that the lack of women reflects bias, but only 17 percent of them argued that it “definitely reflects bias.”

It seems that most people agree that the bias is the result of a larger cultural trend, rather than the views of a few specific people: “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 organized’.”

If the problem is so deeply-rooted in our society, what can college women in STEM do to counteract it?

Dr. Piroska Szabó, Ph.D., the associate professor and lead investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute Center for Epigenetics told Her Campus that it's so important to continue recognizing and celebrating women who have already accomplished great things in the STEM fields. 

 “Yes, there is a bias against women in science, and even more bias in recognition. But some women have made it and received Nobel prizes in the past. My favorites from this list are Barbara McClintock, who discovered the jumping elements, and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, who discovered the rules of pattern formation," Szabó said. "I think there is hope for change and that women need to stand up for each other more. I think that if you do choose to work in science you should not only do it because you want to win the Nobel prize but because you are excited to figure things out that no one had figured out before you.”

Dr. Sara Pendleton, MD, also told Her Campus that women in STEM should not be discouraged by the lack of recognition, but rather that they should see it as an opportunity to use their skills for good.

“STEM fields need the input and leadership of women. I was in the first class at UM Medical School where there were more women than men graduating," Pendleton said. "That was a huge milestone, but things have come so much farther in the past 25 years! Do not be limited by others’ biases. Recognize that bias may exist and you may have to overcome them, but this is very possible. Excel in all you do and change the world to be a better place.”

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