AWIS Encourages Diverse Representation in Nobel Prizes for Science

Oct 8, 2021Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Shelley O’Brien
202-827-9798
Obrien@awis.org

AWIS Encourages Diverse Representation in Nobel Prizes for Science

WASHINGTON DC, October 8, 2021 – The 2021 Nobel Prize winners in the categories of physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine have been announced and none of the winners are women. AWIS congratulates the new Nobel Laureates on their recognition, however we are deeply concerned about the lack of diversity among the recipients.

“This feels like a giant step backward following last year’s Nobel Prizes when three women were recognized.” said Sandy Robert, CEO of AWIS. “AWIS would like to create a list of women scientists doing groundbreaking research so we can bring more recognition to their work.” Send your recommendations to awis@awis.org.

Professor Winston Morgan shared with MSN that, “There has never been a Black recipient of the prizes for medicine, chemistry and physics, [but] in terms of the gap between the world’s population and the winners — the biggest gap is a gender one.”

The Nobel committees tend to award prizes years after discovery. This practice continues to put women and minorities at a disadvantage. The farther back that the committees look, the pool of women and minorities will be smaller due to systemic biases that have caused these scientists and their work to be overlooked.

According to Robert, “The participation, leadership, and recognition of women and minorities in science has grown over the last 50 years. We encourage award committees to make more of an effort to identify underrepresented scientists and learn about their work. Awards such as the Nobel Prize provide important visibility for a scientist’s career. But it’s a catch-22 that you need to be visible before you arrive on the radar to be nominated. By creating a list of the women advancing science, we can help advance their careers.”

Science and STEM do have a problem recognizing, advancing, and retaining women. While almost half of STEM degrees are earned by women, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women according to UIS data. Many women leave their career due to the harassment that persists in male-dominated fields. Women are paid less, published less, and receive fewer patents, advancement opportunities and scholarly awards due to implicit and explicit biases. Plus, the burden of caregiving falls disproportionately on women and can negatively impact their careers.

Despite these challenges, there are women researching, designing, and discovering innovative solutions. This year alone, many women scientists were recognized for their contributions in combatting the pandemic.

Lack of diversity is a recurring issue which the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute have made efforts to address in the past. However MSN reported that this year, “Only 25% of the 50 professors on the medicine selection committee are women. The Committee for Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences consists of six members, of which one is a woman, and two co-opted members, both men. The chemistry committee consists of six members, all male, and two co-opted members, both women.”

The world is changing. Social justice and racial reckoning are at the forefront. It is time for systemic changes in the Nobel Prize process:

  • The nomination and selection committees change each year. Women were recognized with Nobel Prizes in the sciences in 2018 and 2020, but not 2019 and 2021. A women-led research team should evaluate and audit the nomination and selection processes and recommend ways to improve diversity.
  • The Conversation reported, “Nomination to receive a Nobel Prize in science or medicine is by invitation only [and tends] to favor scientists working at elite research institutions, famous scientists who are good at self-promotion and those well known to their peers. Predictably, these tend to be older, established white men.” A broader nomination process and more transparency is warranted.
  • The list of nominees is sealed for a period of 50 years. The lack of openness may suggest that there is something to hide. The Nobel Prize committees should publish a short list of nominations in advance of the winners. This would keep science and the Nobel Prizes in the spotlight a little longer. The transparency would help expose blindspots. Most importantly, it would shine the spotlight a little a wider to include more scientists. Not everyone can win a Nobel Prize, but even being nominated is an honor.
  • The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute must also ensure that bias is not affecting the process by assembling more diverse selection committees. The selection committees must also receive training to mitigate bias and set clear criteria for the awards.

Robert added, “We know women in science are contributing to solving the grand challenges of today. We see you. You have our support and our gratitude.”

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© 2021 Association for Women in Science. All Rights Reserved.