The Nobel Prize: This Year’s 4 Outstanding (Women) Laureates

Audrey DeJong | Assistant Editor

The Nobel Prize is arguably the most prestigious award given to revolutionizing figures in the math and sciences, although it is also awarded for achievements in world peace, literature, and economics. Starting each February, the Nobel Prize Committee carefully reviews nominations for potential winners; these nominations come from established members of the scientific community, advisors of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, or even from past Nobel laureates. These nominations are carefully reviewed by the Nobel Prize Committee, and after secret deliberation, a short list of 20-30 candidates is compiled. The Committee, composed of 5 members, then chooses the final winners for the prize through a majority vote. 

This year, like every year since 1901, the Committee collected and reviewed nominations of candidates before coming to a conclusion on the winners. But 2020 stands apart in the history of the Nobel Prize: four women were awarded the prize, a significant development given the continual lack of diversity in Nobel Prize laureates. 

On October 6th, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were announced as the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, becoming the 6th and 7th female winners of this prize. And for the first time ever, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to a team of women without a male associate. Charpentier and Doudna were jointly recognized for their work with a type of “genetic scissors” called CRISPR, which has drawn considerable attention for its applications in correcting genetic disorders, gene modification, and cloning. CRISPR has revolutionized the field of biomedicine research and has allowed scientists to manipulate DNA with a high degree of accuracy.  

Also announced this year was Andrea Ghez, who became the 4th female winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize was shared between Ghez (¼), astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel (¼), and mathematical physicist Roger Penrose (½). While both Ghez and Genzel were honored for their contributions to the fields of black holes and relativity, Ghez earned the prize for her “discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy.” Her work utilized adaptive optics, which led her and her colleagues to observe several stars accelerating around a supermassive black hole. Her research group has continually been at the forefront of astrological research—they were the first to take a picture of the center of the Milky Way in 2005—and undoubtedly, they will continue to make new discoveries about our universe. 

Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the 4th female to earn the prize this year. She is attributed with transforming her field by using her poems to express her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” The majority of Glück’s work emphasizes intimacy and vulnerability; her 12 books of poetry, including Firstborn (1968), Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), and American Originality (2017), have all received high praise and even national accreditation for their ability to evoke intense, introspective emotion. Glück styles her poems as a personal narrative, usually touching on death, divorce, and depression in such a way that many of her readers feel connected with her words and idiosyncratic voice. 

However, these few female laureates are far from representative of the demographics of the Nobel Prize as a whole. Only 6% of all Nobel laureates have been women—a statistic that encompasses all Nobel Prizes but overestimates female representation in Nobel Prizes for STEM fields. The Nobel Prizes for Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine are notorious for a glaring lack of female winners since Marie Curie won the Prize in 1903. And more than a century later, the lack of effort to correct female underrepresentation has persisted.  

Göran Hansson, Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, responded to the lack of gender diversity of Nobel laureates by stating that “the inequitable distribution of Nobel prizes is a symptom of a bigger problem”. This “bigger problem” lies in the implicit biases against women in STEM fields. Women are more likely to hit a figurative ceiling in traditionally male-dominated fields like physics or chemistry due to preexisting stereotypes of women in domestic roles. In these fields especially, women are also more likely to face work-related sexism, whether in performance review, recruitment, or compensation. 

The Nobel Prize, which currently lacks adequate female representation in STEM fields, exacerbates current stereotypes of “male” science fields as opposed to “female” ones. Whether as a result of unconscious biases or the disproportionate gender gap in STEM, the Nobel Prize has traditionally been awarded to males. The pattern of male laureates has perpetuated the stereotype that men are more likely to excel in technically challenging fields while also reinforcing the statistic that men are more likely to be recognized for scientific work through awards and prestige

As a global award, the Nobel Prize should do more to reflect gender diversity—and for that matter, ethnic and racial diversity—in their respective fields of science and literature.  The Nobel Prize Committee should make equal representation a key element in the deliberation process to dismantle the image of a Nobel laureate as primarily white and male.

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