This International Women’s Day, Do The Nobel Prizes Show Progress For Women In STEM?

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Nobel chemistry winner Frances Arnold poses for a photo at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Arnold of Caltech was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize, while the other half was shared by George Smith of the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter of the MRC molecular biology lab in Cambridge, England. Arnold is only the fifth woman to win a chemistry Nobel since the prizes began in 1901. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)ASSOCIATED PRESS

2018 was a historic year for Nobel prizes, with the first Nobel Prize in Physics to a woman in over 50 years, and only the second Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a woman in the same period. The fact that these are milestones at all says something significant about the lack of gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. But while they throw decades of inequality into stark relief, the 2018 Nobels also suggest that progress, though it’s slow, is happening.

Only 49 out of 923 Nobel Prizes awarded so far in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine have gone to a woman: about 3%. But those figures, alone, don’t tell us anything about how things have changed over time, and that’s the part of the story that really matters.

In the first few years of the Nobels, from 1901 to 1920, 2 out of 60 prizes awarded in the sciences, included a woman (Marie Curie, both times), or 3.33%. A few decades later, the needle starts to move ever so slightly: from 1961 to 1980, 3 out of 60 prizes awarded included a woman, or 5.0%. But it’s no surprise to anyone that science in the early 20th century was ridiculously sexist. How has scientific culture changed since then, and how is it changing today?

Since 2000, including 2018, 8 out of 54 prizes awarded included a woman, or 14.81%. That’s still a far cry from parity, but it’s not a trivial shift compared to the state of things in 1960; at least, it indicates a positive trend — one which might be gaining momentum. It’s not time to dance in the end zone, but it’s an encouraging sign.

Of course, it also underscores how slow the Nobels are to change. The Nobel committees are, in some ways, bound to the rules Alfred Nobel set out in 1901 when he established the funding for the Nobel Prizes. Among other things, those rules govern who gets a seat on the committees that invite scientists to nominate others for the prizes, and they also govern which scientists get invited to nominate. Nobel’s original rules reserve the majority of those invitations for researchers who hold certain positions or are members of certain national academies of science. Until the demographics of those organizations and positions get more diverse (which is a seperate problem, but also part of the wider state of diversity in STEM), the pool of Nobel nominators will be, for lack of a better way to put it, a bit hidebound.

A smaller proportion of those invitations to nominate are up to the committees, though, and the two institutions responsible for forming the committees — the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, also in Sweden — have tried to use that wiggle room to increase the number of women invited to make nominations. As of 2018, about 25% of the thousands of scientists invited to nominate colleagues for the Nobel Prizes were women. Again, it’s not parity yet, but it’s progress.

The hope is that a more demographically-balanced pool of nominators will lead to a more demographically-balanced pool of nominees. We have no way of knowing exactly how well that’s working out, because nominations are confidential for 50 years. But this year’s invitations, which went out in late 2018, specifically ask nominators to consider diversity in gender and nationality, as well as research topics. They also remind nominators that they can nominate three scientists for three different discoveries, which the committees hope will encourage nominators to cast a wider net.

Of course, it’s important to keep the significance of the Nobel Prizes themselves in perspective, but their gender distribution suggests something about the proportion of women getting the positions, funding, and institutional support that’s (usually) needed to do the kind of research that eventually nets a Nobel. Efforts to improve diversity in science’s most prestigious awards definitely matter, but what’s more significant is changing the conditions that keep women, people of color, and other populations from having equal career opportunities in the STEM fields more broadly. There’s still work to be done, but it’s possible to acknowledge that — and talk about how to move forward — while still celebrating how far we’ve come.

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