Nobel Prize and Women Scientists

Happy International Women’s Day! I’ll do a couple of posts on this over the next day to commemorate this glorious day for both my time zone in Australia and the rest of you in other parts of the world. I want to start with the challenges that lie ahead before celebrating the achievements of women social scientists I admire. Our STEM Women community has been publishing a series of posts celebrating women in sciences, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). We started with a look at the number of Nobel prize laureates.

We found that in its 113 year history, only 17 women scientists have been recognised amongst 692 Noble Prize winners (though this number counts Marie Curie twice for winning in two different fields). That means that less than 3% of Nobel winners are women. This is not due to women’s lack of scientific contribution, but due to the history and culture of the sciences. No woman has ever won the special Maths prize. While some social scientists have been recognised via the Nobel Peace Prize, only one woman social scientist has won a prize for science: Elinor Ostrom who won in 2009 for the special prize in Economics.

We looked at the way in which women have been used as the symbol of science – two women appear on the back of the Nobel medal – the goddess of natural phenomena (Natura) and the goddess of knowledge (Scientia). So while women can be muses for scientific excellence, our research and innovation remain on the margins of science’s highest organisation.

We had a phenomenal backlash when we shared this to our other science community, Science on Google+ (three of us who run STEM Women are also Moderators for SoG+). Various sexist arguments followed, ranging from: “Women aren’t as smart as men” to “This probably isn’t sexism, it’s something else (but somehow it’s women’s fault still).” None of these people presented evidence, but rather they relied on biased personal anecdotes.This thread was incredibly counter-productive; rather than engaging with the science presented, people wanted to argue that they don’t think that this is an example in sexism.

I’ve previously written why personal observations that refuse gender inequality don’t count as science, and how this is connected to the sociology of beliefs, attitudes, power and culture. For the record, a plethora of studies refute these arguments. Empirical data shows various historical, institutional and cultural reasons why women’s careers and achievements are not recognised in the same way as men.

The second image I’ve attached is a quote from Elizabeth Blackburn, who won a Nobel prize in 2009. She has a timely reminder that ties into why we still need International Women’s Day:

This idea that ‘Science needs women’ is really right on target… The ability to solve complex problems is greatly enriched by having different viewpoints.

Read more of our STEM Women posts commemorating this special day on our Google+ page. I’ll be back with more posts on the women who inspired me and more on diversity in social science.

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