Gender Equality, Girls In STEM
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The Nobel Prize: A Mostly-Men’s Club?

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Since the 1970s, the number of women among Nobel Prize winners remains low. This issue brings to light the gender disparity surrounding Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields and the need for encouraging young women to pursue their scientific dreams.

The Nobel Prize has long been recognized as the most prestigious award available in the fields of literature, medicine, chemistry, physics, peace and economics, and has been awarded to 874 laureates and 26 organizations between 1901 and 2015. Yet, out of these numbers, the prize has only been awarded to 49 women. What is keeping women from earning the recognition they deserve in these fields?

According to Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of ” Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries,” “anti-nepotism laws in the U.S. actively prevented women from working at the same universities where their husbands worked until 1971.” In addition, according to Robert Marc Friedman, historian from the University of Oslo, “women faced barriers to entering higher education, especially at elite institutions that offered the resources to do the cutting-edge science that could get them nominated for the prize.”

Although some women, such as Maria Goeppert Mayer and Marie Skłodowska Curie, did find ways around the rules and received the prestigious award, women, in general, still struggle to enter these scientific fields. In fact, most women earned the Nobel Prize in the literature and peace categories as they were awarded 14 and 16 times, respectively, since 1901.

Moreover, according to Stephanie Kovalchik, a statistician at the National Cancer Institute, “up until the 1970s, women’s Nobel Prize wins in the sciences overall kept pace with their participation in the fields. It’s after the 1970s that a gender gap emerged in Nobel Prize awards. As women’s participation in the sciences began to grow at a faster rate, the Nobel Prizes did not keep up.”

Cultural and sociological reasons seem to play a huge role. In fact, according to Mary Ann Liebert, founder of the Rosalind Franklin Society, since you have to be nominated in order to win the Nobel Prize, “men tend not to nominate [women], and women don’t nominate themselves. Women scientists have to be more assertive in seeking nominations. I think that’s a major issue. And I think men have to put women’s names into nomination, too.” Moreover, the Nobel committee seems to have a preference for older laureates, barring younger female scientists who have made tremendous discoveries from earning the recognition.

While some countries have made large investments in encouraging more women to enter STEM fields, these actions are not sufficient. We invite you to join us in this crucial endeavor to empower women to pursue their scientific dreams and to earn the recognition they deserve in these fields. As Linda B. Baker, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine, puts it: “I sincerely hope that my receiving a Nobel Prize will send a message to young women everywhere that the doors are open to them and that they should follow their dreams.”

Cover photo credit: National Cancer Institute/FreeStockPhotos

This entry was posted in: Gender Equality, Girls In STEM

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Megan is a senior at the University of Virginia majoring in Chemistry. She is an advocate for women & girls and an aspiring physician-scientist aiming to conduct translational and health policy research. In addition to PLOS Blogs, her work has been featured/republished at Girls' Globe, Morning Sign Out, and Phys.org. Follow her on Twitter @msmeganyu.

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