Women in the Nobels (or lack thereof)

Dr Donna Strickland was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1963. Why?

Sesha Subramanian
23rd October 2018
By UnknownUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Nobel Prize in Physics this year was awarded to Gérard Mourou, Donna Strickland and Arthur Ashkin for their "ground-breaking inventions in the field of laser physics." The prize itself was well-deserved and the work that they did was quite remarkable. But what follows from this announcement is a surprising fact. Dr Strickland is only the third ever female Nobel Laureate in the field of physics.

For an award that has been in existence for more than a century, this seems rather odd. Are there not enough women scientists in the world? Is there not enough “ground-breaking” research being done by women in physics – or in any field for that matter?

Before we get into the why of it all, let’s look at the numbers. Of the 597 Nobel Prize winners in the natural sciences, only 3% were women. And of the 923 winners of all Nobel Prizes, only 5.2% are women. The disparity is too big to ignore.

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), there are multiple factors at play which can lead to women not choosing a career in science.

One of the earliest ones is how cultural factors and the environment around young girls can shape their perception of science itself. In a report called “Why So Few?” they describe how stereotypes like the notion that boys are better than girls at maths, can negatively impact girls.

The notion that maths and science are “male-dominated” fields also leads to girls setting higher standards for themselves, thinking they have to do more than what is required in order to succeed. And when they fail to achieve these high standards that societal norms have forced them to set for themselves, they believe that they cannot have a successful career in science.

The workplace environment is also crucial for the image of women in science. The Monday before the Nobel announcement, CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) suspended one its top scientists for reportedly having said that physics was “invented and built by men.”

Statements like these do not help the cause of the scientific field. People like to believe – scientists especially – that science rewards men and women equally. But science is a field made up of humans and like a lot of other career choices, science can sometimes forget about equality and its importance, much to its detriment.

Another important thing that the AAUW believes is that the achievements of female scientists and mathematicians need to be highlighted. While such emphasis may lead to more women believing that they can reach great heights in this field, it may also reiterate the notion that the achievement was great because it came in a male-dominant sphere.

Other important factors that have been cited include the lack of portrayal of successful female scientists in movies and TV shows – things that are staple to the modern-day child.

A similar situation outside of science that comes to mind is that of Captain Tsubasa and the nation of Japan. Before the advent of the popular manga series, not many in the island nation wanted to play football but since it came to the fore, it has inspired many of the Japanese people to warm to the game of football – some even choosing it professionally. The absence of a relatable role model – fictional or otherwise – also contributes, albeit in a minor way, to this problem.

There is no quick fix to this problem and resolving the issue of gender equality is going to take time, a radical change of thought and dissolving centuries of prejudice. But it is time that the Nobel committee and the world in general recognised the fact that women scientists do great work and deserve, as Dr. Strickland put it regarding female physicists, “to be celebrated.”

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