Women and the Nobel Prize for Sciences

Two women appear on the back of the Nobel Prize medal. Yet less than  3% of Nobel laureates have been women! Only one woman social scientist has been awarded a science Prize (in economics). Not to mention the fact that most of the winners have been White and predominantly from Europe and North America.

As part of our celebration of women in STEM ahead of International Women’s Day, I wrote about the gendered nature of these awards for STEM Women.

Less than 3% of Nobel Prizes in STEM Awarded to Women

Out of 196 Physics laureates, only two are women. For Chemistry, out of 166 awards given, only four are women. For Medicine or Physiology, out of 204 recipients, ten are women. So in total that is only 16 Nobel prizes given to women scientists out of 566 laureates.

That’s 2.83% of Nobel prizes for women and 97.17% for men.

For maths, there isn’t a Nobel prize but the “unofficial prize” is the Fields Medal, first launched in 1936 and then  awarded every 4 years since 1950. Fifty-two laureates have been given this prize, but no woman has ever won this award.

Similarly, while there is no Nobel Prize for the social sciences (and though social scientists have been recognised via the Peace Prize), there is a special  Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, The Sveriges Riksbank Prize. Forty-five prizes have been awarded to 74 Laureates since 1969. Only one of these has been a woman: Elinor Ostrom who won in 2009.

Together, this means that in its 113 year history, only 17 individual women scientists have been recognised amongst 692 science, maths and economics laureates. That means only 2.5% of all STEM Nobel winners are women.

Women as a Symbol of Scientific Excellence

It is curious that women have received so little recognition for their achievements in science  given that women have long been used as symbols for scientific discovery. One need only look at the symbolism of the Nobel Prize itself and then reflect on the lack of women’s representation in science in the present day.

Alfred Nobel, the patron of the prize, is famously on one side of the medal. On the other side is the figure of Natura on the left, a goddess who symbolises both nature itself and humanity’s inability to understand natural phenomena. As Rudolf Steiner writes, Natura “manifests herself in the world of phenomena but [remains] veiled to you.” From the Ancient Greeks to the School of Chartres, Natura was a central figure in the development of ancient philosophy and she features heavily in the medieval Latin era, as scientific inquiry was heading in new directions.

On the Nobel medal, Natura is pictured holding a cornucopia. To her right is Scientia representing the goddess of knowledge. Scientia lifts Natura’s veil. This picture represents the triumph of scientific methods of discovery, illuminating our understanding of the world.

Londa Schiebinger,  History of Science Professor at Stanford University, notes the irony of this image given women’s historical snub by science’s highest prize. Schiebinger notes that Marie Curie was not the first woman recommended to join the Académie des Sciences in Paris. In fact she was the fourth; the other women George Sand, Rosa Bonheur and Sophie Germain, were all rejected – not for their  knowledge and achievements, but for their gender. Still Curie’s nomination sparked great debate. She was rejected by a vote of 90 to 52. The next year, Curie  would win the first of her two Nobel prizes. Schiebinger  writes:

Ironically, the first person ever to win two of these coveted awards – Marie Curie, in 1903 and 1911 – was still unable to join on an equal basis the ranks of learned men. Woman could serve as the image of science, but women were not yet welcome in the fellowship of science

International Women’s Day is fast approaching so we’re aiming to redress the limited visibility of women in STEM. Even as we celebrate the gender progress in science, let’s not forget this history, and the challenges and opportunities ahead in furthering diversity in STEM!

Credits & Where You Can Learn More

Figures on women Nobel Prize in Science recipients drawn from Nobel Prize list: http://goo.gl/5Y2hsv

Fields Medal recipients: http://goo.gl/KIu5DX

Economic Sciences Nobel prize: http://goo.gl/sl6Vmc

Steiner on the Goddess Natura: http://goo.gl/4Uns7p

Schiebinger on women & the Nobel Prize: http://goo.gl/uvE4mD

Image of the Nobel Prize medal: http://goo.gl/ABvzU9

Top image: by Zuleyka Zevallos for STEM Women. 

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