This year, only one woman won a Nobel Prize in a science field—and that makes it a pretty ordinary year. Since the awards were first given in 1901, only three women have ever won the physics prize, five the chemistry award, and 12 the medicine or physiology prize. Economics is the new kid on the block: It began to give prizes in 1969. Its laureates count only two women among them: Elinor Ostrom, who won in 2009, and Esther Duflo, this year.
In all, women have taken home just 22 Nobels, about 3% of the total. And half of the prizes that have gone to women, 11, were awarded since 2000. (Men have won many more over the same period: 185.)
Liselotte Jauffred, a physicist at the University of Copenhagen, wondered about the factors that might be influencing the gender representation in Nobel awards. For example, Nobels famously honor work done years or decades earlier. So, were women simply underrepresented in research fields during the long-ago years now being honored?
To find out, Jauffred and two colleagues looked at the data. And they concluded that there’s a 96% likelihood that bias against women, not underrepresentation, accounts for the gender distribution seen in the Nobel Prizes.
Jauffred recently talked with ScienceInsider about the work. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said it has increased the number of female nominees for the prizes. Yet, the results don’t seem encouraging. In 2018, two women won Nobels: Frances Arnold in chemistry and Donna Strickland in physics. This year there was one female winner. Can your study say whether these numbers are flukes or signs of progress?
A: We cannot say anything about trends based on a single year. We did [develop a simulation that showed that] every year the chance that the winners will be all men in chemistry, economics, and physics is over 80%, and medicine is around 60%. … In the last 20 years, there have been about the same number of women Nobel laureates as in the first 100 years. It’s progressing in the right direction, but not fast enough.
Q: Can your study say anything about the sources of bias?
A: Our study is purely a statistical study that says that there is a bias. It would be really nice to have access to some statistics on the nominees, but all this data is secret for 50 years.
Reading through other literature, I don’t actually think it’s so much the Nobel committee that is implementing this bias. I think it’s something that happens in multiple earlier steps. It’s well known that there is this leaky pipeline from [receiving a] Ph.D. to [becoming] tenured faculty. Maybe these same reinforcement mechanisms are at play for getting into this little pool of excellent researchers worthy of Nobel Prizes.
Q: How did you do your analysis?
A: We assumed that among all tenured faculty members, everybody would have the same chance to [win a Nobel and] enter this category of really esteemed researchers. We sampled a pool of the faculty members and said that if [10% of the faculty were women], then we would think that the success rate of women to get a Nobel Prize would also be 10%. Then we looked at the success rate of women in getting the Nobel Prize and see that it is much, much lower than what the gender ratio suggests.
Q: How did you get the gender ratio for faculty members?
A: We used [U.S. National Science Foundation] data as a proxy for the whole world. The U.S. takes quite a lot of prizes, so we thought it was reasonable. Then we did a regression to try to estimate the gender ratio back in time to when we don’t have the data.
Q: How did you account for the lag between important scientific work and when it gets honored?
A: We put in a delay time. The most precise analysis we found says there is an average 20 years from the day you do your groundbreaking research to the day you get the Nobel Prize. With a 20-year lag, we find that there is 96% probability that there is a bias against women.
Q: So this rules out the explanation that women win fewer awards today because, back when the work was done, there were fewer women in the fields.
A: But the lag time does account for something. There are exponentially more women within these different fields now. So of course, it matters a lot exactly how many years you move back along these gender ratio curves.
Q: What might you say to a very ambitious young scientist who would like to do research at the very highest level and be honored for it, and who also happens to be a woman?
A: I’m not worthy of a Nobel Prize myself, so I don’t know. … There is one message that we could take out of this and that is to be careful not to think that we can foresee where the groundbreaking findings will come from. Maybe we’re not letting the right people do the right research. We’re creating a very, very small elite group of white men, but maybe we’re missing a lot of interesting research.
*Correction, 16 October, 1:40 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated how many women have won a Nobel Prize in Physics.