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Al Jazeera | Do Nobel Prizes portend women’s progress in STEM fields?
It’s Nobel Prize season and once again, men are dominating the list of laureates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields AWIS examined the awards allocation processes of 18 STEM disciplinary societies with a combined membership of nearly 500,000 scientists and mathematicians. The survey found that “women win a higher proportion of teaching and service awards than expected” rather than scholarly awards.
It’s Nobel Prize season and once again, men are dominating the list of laureates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Cosmologist James Peebles and astrophysicists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday, while Monday saw another trio of men – William G Kaelin Jr, Peter J Ratcliffe and Gregg L Semenza – jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine.
The all-male roster so far highlights what has become something of a ritual criticism of the Nobel committees in recent years: the lack of awards recognition for women in STEM.
With more women entering STEM fields, it’s not just accolades that are at stake. Career advancement, research funding and opportunities as well as pay are influenced by professional awards. And without visible, recognised female scientists, young girls can be discouraged from entering science and mathematics fields in the first place, studies have found, possibly robbing future generations of a promising laureate.
Our culture still doesn’t think of physics as a women’s field, so having a woman recently win the prize is a good thing because hopefully someone will look at her and think a woman can get this very prestigious prize.
RACHEL IVIE, SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR EDUCATION AND RESEARCH, STATISTICAL RESEARCH CENTER, AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS
‘A snowball effect’
Women are underrepresented among Nobel Prize winners as a whole. Only 51 women have been awarded the honour across all disciplines between 1901 and 2019. Historically, physics has been an especially male-dominated prize.
Of the 113 Nobel Prizes awarded in physics between 1901 and 2019, only three have gone to female scientists: Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.
Strickland’s win last year brought important visibility, says Rachel Ivie, senior director for education and research at the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics.
“Our culture still doesn’t think of physics as a women’s field, so having a woman recently win the prize is a good thing because hopefully someone will look at her and think a woman can get this very prestigious prize,” Ivie told Al Jazeera.
The number of women pursuing careers in physics is increasing, according to a study published this year by Ivie and her team, who reported that women earned 20 percent of physics doctorates and 40 percent of astronomy doctorates in 2017. But more men are entering the fields as well, meaning the overall percentage of women in physics has basically remained the same.
Disparities in pay and resources remain big challenges.
While women earning doctorates in physics can expect to be paid as much as their male counterparts one year after graduation, the pay gap widens considerably after 10 to 15 years, with men earning 10 percent more than women, the study found.
Ivie and her team also identified inequities in the resources available to women in sciences, such as lab space and the ability to hire graduate students or employees to help with research.
“The lack of women getting awards and prizes is a reflection of some of these inequalities they’ve experienced over their careers, and things take a snowball effect,” says Ivie.