Science News, writing

Charts! Women and the Nobel Prize

The 2017 Nobel Prize season has come and gone. Eleven people and one organization got a shiny medal and some money across six categories: physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology, literature, peace, and economics.1

Two of those people are alumni of my alma mater.

Not one of those people is a woman.

This isn’t by any means an unusual occurrence. I’m not the first to point out the generally pale sausagefest that is the Nobel Laureate community. I definitely won’t be the last. People have written much better essays on that (and the fact that most science isn’t done by lone geniuses but we still reward it like it is), and you can read them elsewhere.

But I love charts, so I’ve gone through the Prize’s website and done some data collection for anyone else that loves charts, too.

How Many Women have Won a Nobel Prize (+Econ)?

Out of the 896 prizes awarded to individuals (i.e. not institutions/organizations, which are only ever awarded the Peace Prize) since 1901, only 49 of them have been given to women. That’s 5.47%.

If you break it down by category, you see that women are much more likely to earn a non-STEM Nobel (Literature, Peace). You shouldn’t be surprised by that.


Breaking it Down by Year

Over the 114 years at least one Nobel Prize was awarded,2 there were no female laureates in 77 of them.

67.5% of years don’t have a single female laureate. That includes both 2016 and 2017!

The longest ‘dry spell’ for women lasted 1948 through 1962 – Gerty Theresa Cori shared a Medicine win in ’47; Maria Goeppert-Mayer shared a Physics win in ’63.

In 2010, the highest female/male laureate ratio became 5:8. Only seven times was there more than just one female laureate in a single year, and only thrice have multiple women won in a single category: 1976’s Peace Prize to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, 2009’s Medicine Prize to Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (shared w/ Jack W. Szostak), and 2011’s Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman.

It’s Even Worse For STEM

Only 18 prizes have been awarded to women for the three STEM Nobels – Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine/Physiology. If you include the Econ prize, it only goes up by 1. And since Marie Skłodowska Curie won two, that means there are only 17 female laureates, compared to 579 males.

Over the 113 years at least 1 STEM Prize was awarded, there were no female (STEM) laureates in 97 of them. That’s 85.8%.

The maximum ‘dry spell’ also increases, now from 1912 through 1934 – Marie Curie won the Chemistry category all by herself in 1911; her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie shared a Chemistry win in 1935. If you go by laureates, the gap increases by nearly a decade, back to Marie’s first win (Physics) in 1903, which she shared with two men.

2009 was the only year that saw more than one woman win a STEM Nobel in a single year, with a total STEM laureate gender ratio of 3:6. Curie’s 1911 win earned woman an equivalent ratio because there were only 2 other prizes awarded.

And finally, only 3 women have won a solo STEM Nobel Prize, compared to 146 men:3

  1. Marie Curie, 1911 (Chemistry)
  2. Dorothy Crawfoot Hodgkin, 1964 (Chemistry)
  3. Barbara McClintock, 1983 (Medicine/Physiology)

A Note About My Alma Mater (I know it’s not your fault)

Caltech counts 37 total alumni (BS, MS, or PhD) and faculty winning at least one Nobel Prize (Linus Pauling won two); three were awarded just this year.

None of them are women.

And Finally…

On the two medals a STEM Laureate can win (The Physics and Chemistry one is the same), there are a total of four different women. Alfred Nobel’s the only dude.

I wonder how much we can over-think that.

Top row, left: back of Physics and Chemistry medals; right: back of Medicine/Physiology medal
Bottom row: front of all Nobel medals

1. The Econ prize started in 1969, way after the rest of them. It’s officially the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel”. Sveriges Riksbank, for those of you unfamiliar with Sweden, is the country’s central bank, which donated a bunch of money back in ’68 for their 300th anniversary. So it’s kinda a pseudo-Nobel. 
2. 1940-1942 had none at all; every other year since the Prize’s inception had at least 1 laureate.
3. Note that the last solo STEM Prize was in 2016, so it’s not like it can’t happen again.

While I go make myself a drink or 17, someone should make charts for other minority identities…or tell me if one of the Laureates out there doesn’t fit the gender describes them as.

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