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How gender bias influences Nobel Prizes

Women receive Nobel Prizes in science significantly less often than might be predicted from their representation in those fields. But why?

When Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in physics this year, she was the first woman to receive the honor in 55 years. The previous female winner, Maria Goeppert Mayer, was in 1963, for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. Before that, Marie Curie received the prize in 1903 for her work on radioactivity.

And that’s it. Between 1901 and 2018, the prize for physics has been awarded 112 times, but only three times to women. The prizes in chemistry, medicine, and economics reflect a similar imbalance. Of the 688 Nobel laureates in science, only 21 have been women.

Of course, the gender gap in science is well known. So it’s easy to imagine that the small number of female laureates merely reflects this gap. But is this true, or are there other factors at work that have prevented women winning Nobel Prizes?

Marie Curie

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Liselotte Jauffred at the University of Copenhagen and a couple of colleagues, who have compared the gender ratio among Nobel laureates with the gender ratio within their fields and say they do not match. Indeed, women are significantly more underrepresented in the list of Nobel Prize winners than they are in science. 

The basic facts about prize winners are easy to gather well known. Laureates are on average 55 years old and thus are likely to be sampled from senior faculty members at universities around the world. They also receive the prize for work they did about 15 years earlier, on average. So today’s laureates were sampled from senior faculty members with a time lag of roughly 15 years.

But determining the fraction of senior female faculty members relative to all senior faculty over the last hundred years or so is harder. Jauffred and co used data from the US National Science Foundation that lists faculty members at universities by gender and scientific discipline between 1973 and 2010.

They assume this data can be used as a proxy for the global distribution of gender ratios. They then extrapolate to determine the gender ratio by discipline between 1901 and 2010.

Finally, the team compared the historical gender ratios with the number of prizes awarded to women and searched for potential bias using a hierarchical Bayesian interference model.

The results are unequivocal. “Female senior scientists are less likely to be awarded a Nobel Prize than their gender ratio suggests,” say Jauffred and co. 

But why? One possibility is that the Nobel committee unfairly evaluates nominations for women, but Jauffred and co discount that. Instead, they point to the many biases and hindrances that influence women throughout their careers, often before they become senior enough or influential enough to be considered for major prizes. “We speculate that there are limitations for women to enter the pool of very well esteemed scientists worthy of a nomination,” say the researchers.

For example, female laureates are significantly less likely to be married or have children than male laureates. That suggests family life limits the chances that women will enter this pool. Jauffred and co also say that men in academia are more likely to get the resources and support needed for excellent scientific work. “This suggests that men are more prone to end up in the pool of possible Nobel nominees,” they say.

That’s interesting work that reveals the insidious influence of gender bias in science. “Strikingly few Nobel laureates within medicine, natural and social sciences are women,” say Jauffred and co.

The question now is how best to change this situation so that women are equally and fairly represented.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1810.07280 : Gender Bias in Nobel Prizes

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