Why Women Win Nobel Prizes At A Far Lower Rate Than Men

This week marks the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize Laureates, new members of an exclusive group open only to the year's most influential professionals. Each year, between one and three laureates are chosen per category based on their contributions to physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, or economic sciences.

All Nobel laureates have made unparalleled contributions to society and should be lauded for their efforts to improve the world. One aspect of the award that remains a cause for concern, though, is the lack of women to whom it is presented.

Historically, women have been severely underrepresented in the world of Nobel Prize Laureates, with the most equal field, peace, boasting only 17 female laureates out of 133. Scientific fields like physics, chemistry, and medicine struggle to break double digits, and economic sciences has had only one female laureate out of 81 total.

So why is this? In a modern society that touts equality and higher education, shouldn't the number of female laureates reflect these values?

The answer may take root in a few places.

First, the history of the Nobel Prize extends back to the early 20th century, an era in which women in nearly all parts of the world were still bound to traditional values that often excluded higher education, research, and global leadership. That's not to say that women were not making massive contributions to society at the time (Marie Curie, for example, won two Nobel Prizes within an eight-year period). However, a society that blatantly valued and recognized the contributions of men over women led to a scarcity of female laureates that will certainly take more than a century to amend, especially at this rate.

Second, early education access for girls in some parts of the world is still severely restricted. As the Nobel Prize is awarded globally, a lack of educated women in parts of the world certainly contributes to a lower amount of female laureates overall. Inspiring female laureates from these places do exist (like Malala Yousafzai), but they are typically not as well-represented as women from countries that emphasize education equality.

Third, women in countries that do support education for women often face structural barriers in higher-level academia. These barriers are especially relevant because, according to the vice-chair of the board of directors Göran Hansson, the committee goes "back in time to identify discoveries"; this means that discoveries from 20 to 30 years ago are being rewarded this year, from an era when women often faced lower pay, maternity discrimination, and isolation within the workplace at higher rates than they do currently. And though women are certainly more prominent in scientific and leadership roles than they were decades ago, the ever-persistent gender gap, especially in STEM fields, means that female laureates in two or three decades are still not likely to enjoy the same representation as their male counterparts.

The disparity between the number of male and female Nobel laureates is not one that is likely to close quickly, even in light of the growing number of women in STEM and leadership roles. It may be decades, if not centuries, before we see a year that has an equal number of male and female laureates, and given the award's male-dominated history, we may never see a comprehensive 50/50 split. All we can do is continue to encourage our young women to excel in STEM and leadership roles and continue to pass legislation which weakens the structural barriers for women in academia and the workforce.

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