It’s that time of year again: the Nobel Prizes (and the mouthful that is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel…which is technically not a Nobel because it wasn’t in ol’ Freddy’s original plan). Back in 2017, I noticed that not a single woman was awarded any of the 12 prizes (11 individuals and 1 organization) that year, and saw fit to throw together some not particularly fancy graphs and pie charts to detail the lack of female representation amongst the Nobel/Econ Prize laureates since their inception in 1901.
Well, it’s 2021, now, and we’ve made a lot of progress in the past 4 years, guys.
Out of 13 prizes (all individuals), a single woman laureate was found.
Her name is Maria Ressa, and she shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
So congratulations to you, Ms. Ressa — and for being the first Filipino laureate, as well!
Anyway, I felt it was time to update the charts, since there was one notable milestone which happened, last year. I’ll be getting to that in a little bit.
How Many Women have Won a Nobel/Econ Prize?
Since 2017, another 52 prizes across the 6 categories (Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economics) have been handed out.
10 of those went to women, which might actually be more than I would have expected.
(Does this mean any of those 42 men/orgs didn’t deserve their prize? Maybe? Maybe not? It’s subjective picking the most significant research of a given year. If it were up to me, I’d break the rules and give one to Vera Rubin despite her being dead, no matter what that year’s Physics prize was supposed to be awarded for. There’s also something to be said about the representation for People of Color — no Black person has ever won any of the science-based Nobels. Which should probably (i.e. definitely) be rectified.)
Obviously, when I extend the dataset all the way back to 1901, that percentage is going to drop significantly. The chart below shows the share of awards: 975 total laureates including organizations, of which 59 are women. Since Marie Curie won twice (in 1903 sharing the prize with her husband and the guy who discovered radioactivity, and in 1911 all by her awesome self), that makes 58 female laureates in total.
Breaking things down by category, the most drastic change from 4 years ago, percentage-wise, came in both Physics and Economics, which DOUBLED (from 2 to 4 and 1 to 2, respectively) their female laureates. In contrast, unfortunately, Medicine didn’t have ANY female laureates in this period, despite having the third-highest cumulative count (after Peace and Literature).
Here are the updated graphs for each year (You can right click and open the images in a new tab to have a closer look):
Thankfully, since 2017 there has been at least one female laureate each year, keeping the current total number of years with no female representation at 77 (now of 117 instead of 114). Thus, the percentage of years with zero women getting a share of any prize has dropped from 67.5% to 65.8%, and we can only hope it continues to decrease…forever and ever.
It also means that 2058 will be the EARLIEST (i.e. if every single year from now until then has at least one female laureate) women will get recognized at the Nobels 50% of the time.
Hashtag Girl Power.
The maximum ratio remains 5 women to 8 men, awarded in 2009. The next highest comes from 2020 with 4 women to 7 men (though the ratio worsens slightly when you include the organization winning the Peace prize that year).
But 2020 is still a very important year for women at the Nobels, because of the Chemistry prize…
A Focus On SCIENCE!
2020 was the first time ever that two women shared a Science Nobel (Physics, Chemistry, or Medicine) without having to share it with a man: the honor went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 and its role in gene editing.
Prior to last year, there had been only three instances wherein a man did not share in a science prize: 1911, when Marie Curie won hers in Chemistry and became the first and so far only person to win two Nobel prizes in two different science categories, 1964 (Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Chemistry), and in 1983 (Barbara McClintock, Medicine).
In comparison, of the 340 total science prizes (not individual laureates, but total Physics/Chemistry/Medicine prizes awarded to one or more people), 319 of them had only male laureates.
Besides that good news, women increased their representation in the science Nobels to 3.6% of all laureates, up from 3.0% in 2017.
And there are now two years with 3 female science laureates, 2009 and 2020. (Yes, I did realize after the fact that I titled this one STEM despite all three prizes falling under the “S”, and maybe the “T” if you think about applications really hard.)
That 2020 success of gave women their greatest representation in the Science Prizes as a whole, yet, at 37.5% of the total yearly laureates.
As for the bad news, 2021 has become the 99th cumulative year (84.6% of all years) with no female representation in the science prizes.
We’ll have to wait 50 years before the nomination archive lets the public know how many women missed out on a win, this year. But this Science article (the magazine website — not the concept) states that 2021 saw women made up 13% of the 874 Medicine nominees, and 7–8% of Chemistry nominees (unknown total), both of which are increases from previous years. Medicine reportedly was at 5% in 2015, and Chemistry an unspecified amount about half what it is now in 2018. (No one on the committee that decides the Physics prize provided any numbers, just that they “increased significantly in the last few years”. I’m inclined to guess it’s an even smaller percentage.)
And Finally, a Caltech Update
The number of laureates affiliated with my (BS) alma mater has increased to 45, and we finally got some female representation with Frances Arnold sharing the Chemistry Prize in 2018, and Andrea Ghez helping to double that Physics count in 2020 (the latter contributing to the discovery of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, so special shoutout for the astrophysics representation!)
For comparison, the alma mater of my MSc has 19 laureates listed.
As for my soon to be doctoral alma mater, we’ve got at least two IgNobels according to a quick google, which is pretty snazzy, too.