Nobel Intent

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Nobel Intent


Rachel Kaufman, Editor

Over the nearly 120-year history of the Nobel Prizes, only two of the prizes in physics have ever gone to a woman. None have gone to people of African heritage. 

Looking at the data, as many have over the years1, it’s easy to see that the vast majority of Physics Prize recipients have been white men. (There were not even any scientists nominated from countries in Africa for the first 65 years of the prize, according to the most recent data made available by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.)

The Nobel Foundation, which manages the prize money and represents the institution, said at a press announcement last fall that they were concerned about the lack of women’s representation in the prizes.2

“[W]e are disappointed looking at the larger perspective that more women have not been awarded. Part of it is that we go back in time to identify discoveries. We have to wait until they have been verified and validated before we can award the prize. There was an even larger bias against women then. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years,” Goran Hansson, vice chair of the Board of Directors of the Nobel Foundation, said. “…We will, starting next year, indicate in our invitation to nominate women scientists and consider ethnic and geographic diversity. …[W]e are concerned, and we are taking measures. I hope that in five years or ten years, we will see a very different situation.”

The steps the committees are taking to rectify the gender imbalance are noble but are likely not the whole story. The standard explanation—that it takes a long time for a discovery’s usefulness to be apparent, and there just weren’t enough women scientists (or scientists of color) doing important work 2–3 decades ago—doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, according to data from AIP’s own Statistical Research Center. In an article published in the Huffington Post,3 Rachel Ivie and Susan White write that in 1980, 7 percent of the people receiving PhDs in physics in the United States were women. (The Nobel Prize is, of course, an international institution, but around one-third of its winners are US citizens.) Since 1990, 57 men have won the Nobel Prize in Physics (and no women). Using the 7 percent figure as a baseline, the authors write, if the pool of Nobel nominees was 7 percent female, the probability of 57 men winning the prize is less than two percent. Rather, the authors say, it’s likely a combination of factors are at play, both of which trace their root causes to sexism.

“Even if they follow similar career paths, perhaps something happens along the way that makes men more likely to do the type of research that leads to a Nobel Prize,” they write. “Results from our survey of nearly 15,000 physicists from around the world suggest that women do not have the same access to opportunities and resources to advance their careers as do men.” This could result in fewer women being nominated—and since nominees are secret for 50 years, we won’t know if this is the case for some time. Finally, they say, even if women are nominated in equal numbers as men, sexism could be at play, resulting in men winning.

Given that unconscious bias is well supported in the literature, the authors conclude that it is the most likely explanation for the gender disparity.

The Society of Physics Students is committed to making physics more accessible to everyone. That’s a start, but it’s going to take hard work to upend the power structures that lead to these gender and racial disparities and replace them with ones that lead to a more diverse and inclusive future for the prize. 



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