This year’s female Nobel laureates – leading a paradigm shift?

It is evident that even with this year’s evolution in the recognition of women’s achievements, the Nobel prizes are still a bastion of inequality.

a contribution to our humans of physics series by Shirin Ermis, originally published at

A couple of years ago when I started studying Physics, I felt bold enough to try and predict what the Nobel prizes would be for in that year. This autumn, as I was reminded that the announcement days were right before me, my first thought was “I hope there will be some women winning the prize this year.” Growing up with Marie Skłodowska-Curie as an absolute role model, as well as reading about Maria Goeppert-Mayer in my teenage years, I’ve always been rooting for more female Nobel laureates in Physics. I realised very quickly into my degree that female role models are sparse – a fact that almost got me to the point of quitting the subject altogether. Seeing that reflected in the lack of diversity of Nobel laureates year after year was frankly exhausting. 

Then in 2018 came Donna Strickland winning the Physics prize for her work on chirped pulse amplification in laser physics, a mere 55 years after Maria Goeppert-Mayer. And, in the same year there was Frances Arnold who was awarded a prize in Chemistry (after Physics, the science in which female laureates are rarest). But this year was different. Three women won science prizes, almost half of all the science prizes awarded this year. 

Andrea Ghez won a share of the Physics prize for her work on black holes and “the discovery of a super-massive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”. In Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were the first female-only pair in history to win a science Nobel prize for their truly revolutionary development of the genome editing method CRISPR. During their interviews, all women stated that they hoped that their achievements in science would inspire more girls and young women to go into research. “My wish is that this will provide a positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and to show them that women in science can also have an impact through the research that they are performing,” Charpentier told interviewers. 

Göran Hanson, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, rightly pointed out last year that the Nobel committees already make an effort to diversify the prizes by reaching out to a large number of universities, or by hosting Nobel Symposia on other continents. In 2019, they also explicitly started to call for nominations taking into account diversity in gender, geography, and topic. However, Hanson’s position that it is the responsibility of others to encourage women to go into science is arguable, considering the reach of the Nobel prizes extends far beyond research labs and university campuses. For many girls, the Nobel prizes are the biggest piece of science news that they hear in a year. Seeing that they are overwhelmingly awarded to men from Europe and North America can be detrimental not just to how these girls view science, but also to the general perception of science in society. 

Moreover, a study published last year by Lunnemann and others clearly revealed that even the underrepresentation of women in the natural sciences does not fully explain the gender inequality that we see in the recognitions of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Quite literally, the labs are more diverse than the Nobel prizes. 

Particularly in the light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US and worldwide, it becomes evident that even with this year’s evolution in the recognition of women’s achievements, the Nobel prizes are still a bastion of inequality. Exactly zero of the over 600 science prize laureates have been Black researchers, and they have been only marginally more recognised with the literature, peace, and economics prizes where a total of 13 Black laureates where awarded. Unless this does not undergo drastic change, the claims of the Royal Academy to be striving towards diversity are only empty words. 

Finally, while science may be more diverse than the prizes, it should not be overlooked that women and researchers with ethnic minority backgrounds still face considerable hardships in their career. Women make up less than 15% of authors who publish in Nature, and less than 2% of authors are from Africa, South America or Western Asia. With citations and published papers as key metrics for career advancement in research, this puts women and people of colour at an immense disadvantage. They earn less, their papers don’t get accepted as easily and they are less likely to hold positions of power. Science has a systemic diversity problem, and while this year’s Nobels for Ghez, Charpentier and Doudna are a step in the right direction, there remains a lot to be done – by all of us.

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