This year’s all-male slate of science Nobel Prize winners—in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine—disappointed but didn’t shock many in the scientific community. It’s in line with most of the Nobel Foundation’s 121-year history: In only 18 of those years has a woman been among the science laureates. Now, members of two award-granting committees have shared with Science internal numbers that highlight one cause of the disparity: Female nominees for the science prizes remain scarce, despite a doubling in recent years.
Even after the recent increases, just 13% of the nominees for the physiology or medicine prize and 7% to 8% for the chemistry prize are women. “This has been the problem with many high-level and prestigious awards: If [women are] not in the pool, you can’t select them,” says Jo Handelsman, a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has studied gender bias in the scientific community.
This year’s shutout came on the heels of a standout year for women: Three of the eight 2020 science prize winners were women and one prize—the chemistry Nobel—went to a pair of women and no men. “I thought that last year it was … very positive and that maybe there was real change going on, but now we’re back to normal,” says Liselotte Jauffred, a physicist at the University of Copenhagen who has examined the odds of women winning Nobel Prizes.
Calls to address the gender imbalance among Nobel laureates—as well as the scarcity of people of color and scientists outside North America and Europe—have reached a fever pitch in recent years. In 2018, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the physics and chemistry Nobels, announced changes to its nomination process to encourage greater diversity. The selection committees widened the list of people invited to submit nominations to include more women and scientists from around the globe. They also adjusted the wording in the invitations to explicitly mention underrepresented groups and to ask scientists to nominate up to three discoveries, not just one. The Karolinska Institute, which awards the physiology or medicine Nobel, made similar changes.
The selection committees have generally been secretive about nominee statistics, citing a Nobel Foundation statute stipulating nominations be kept secret for 50 years. But committee members shared summaries of the data with Science. The total number of nominations for a physiology or medicine Nobel jumped from about 350 in 2015 to 874 this year. Over those years, the percentage of female nominees more than doubled, from 5% in 2015 to 13% this year. The chemistry committee saw a similar increase: At 7% to 8%, female nominees have doubled their share since 2018. A representative for the physics committee declined to share exact figures, but wrote in an email, “The number of nominated women has increased significantly in the last few years.”
Still, “Those numbers don’t mean much if they don’t lead to an increasing number of women receiving the award,” says Lokman Meho, an information scientist at Georgetown University in Qatar who in August published a study in Quantitative Science Studies showing the gender disparity is greater among science Nobel laureates than among winners of other prestigious science, engineering, and math awards.
Members of the powerful selection committees that sort through the nominations say they aren’t satisfied with the progress. “The fraction of women among the nominated people is very low and I don’t think it represents the [fraction of] women that were doing science even 20 years ago,” says Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a biophysical chemist at Chalmers University of Technology who is one of two women on the eight-person chemistry committee. “We want to have more women nominated,” agrees Eva Olsson, an experimental physicist at Chalmers who is a member of the physics selection committee.
Wittung-Stafshede adds that, in addition to finding ways to boost the number of women who are nominated, the committees might also want to broaden their view of what counts as a Nobel-worthy discovery. “It’s possible we miss certain topics and candidates because we are biased and have a narrow view of what is an important chemistry discovery. We may need to think more outside the normal box.”
She agrees with those who say the scarcity of women winning prizes is due in part to the systemic disadvantages women face throughout their careers. But that explanation is not the whole picture, she adds. “That’s kind of a passive way to approach the problem. … We also need to address it ourselves,” she says of the Nobel committees.
Nobel watchers say there’s also room for improvement in the makeup of the selection committees themselves. Members are drawn from fellows of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (physics and chemistry committees) and professors at the Karolinska Institute (physiology or medicine committee). This year, the physics committee had seven men and one woman, the chemistry committee was composed of six men and two women, and the physiology or medicine committee had the highest proportion of women, with 13 men and five women.
“We have to struggle against the underrepresentation of women in leading academic positions,” wrote Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the physiology or medicine committee and a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute, in an email to Science. “Thanks to new recruitments over the recent ten years or so, the proportion of women [on the committee] is now similar to the proportion of female full professors at the [institute].”
Wittung-Stafshede is satisfied with the number of women on the chemistry committee. “I’m happy that we are two because it’s always hard to be the only woman.” She said she feels her presence is helpful because the committee has been engaging in more and more discussions about gender equity, and she’s able to share a firsthand account. “I’ve experienced a lot of the unfavorable norms and biases that we talk about.”
The committees don’t consider gender when they discuss which discovery to award a Nobel Prize, Olsson says. “The focus is on science.” But she thinks it’s important for women to participate in the selection process and ceremonies because they can serve as role models. “We make sure that women are there and presenting the prizes.”
“The few women we have at high positions in academia are used a lot, often too much, for committee work,” Wittung-Stafshede says. “One should be careful around this, to save women’s time. But in the case of the Nobel Prize committees … it is extremely important. It sends a clear signal we care about this topic.”
Visibility is not the only key. Handelsman thinks a more transparent process could lead nominators to add more women’s names to the pool of candidates. “How people get on whatever list of possible nominees is a mystery to most people,” she says. “If women are unaware of whatever that political process is, then they can’t place themselves in the appropriate situations or [get] linked to the right people who can help them get nominated.”