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The Nobel Prize Gender Gap

Over a century has passed since Nobel Prize had been established. Many distinguished individuals have been recognized for their great achievements, innovations and breakthrough in a field of science, medicine, technology, literature and peace. According to the Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize [1] there have been 555 recipients of Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences (1901-2012). Only 43 of those individuals or 7.7 % were women.

nobel winners

This chart (Figure 1) illustrates all Nobel Prize winners broken down by category and ranked by gender (1901-2011). [2]


In her 2001 book ‘Nobel Prize Women in Science. Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries' Sharon Bertsch McGrayne explores the reason for astonishing gender disparity by examining the lives and achievements of women scientists who either won Nobel prize or played a crucial role in Nobel-prize winning project. [3] Even when women have contributed to work that led to Nobel prizes they were very often written out of the story, as in the now well-known case of Rosalind Franklin. Her work on the double helix shape of DNA was not recognized when the Nobel Prize for that discovery was awarded to James Watson and Francis Crick. A similar story could be told of Jocelyn Bell (now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell) and the discovery of pulsars, and of Lise Meitner in the history of nuclear fission. [4] Many women-scientists faced enormous obstacles. They were confined to basement laboratories and attic offices. They crawled behind furniture to attend science lectures. They worked in Universities for decades without pay as volunteers as late as 1950s. [3]

One can see in Figure 1 that outside of the sciences, literature has a rather better record. Women have been awarded almost a tenth of all the prizes handed out – but even that hardly gives confidence that the distribution of Nobel Prizes accurately reflect the distribution of elite minds. Given how many women have been authors since the descendants of Jane Austen (1775-1817, English novelist) and occasionally secured a room of their own to write in, is there really only one great woman author for every ten men? [4]

Of all the prizes it is peace that is stereotypically seen as most often a more female domain. It is one which is frequently awarded to organizations rather than individuals; women were possibly even in the majority as members of some of the 20 organizations awarded that prize over the years. But women have been among only a small minority of named winners. Those 12 who had been awarded Nobel prizes by the start of 2009 were fewer than 15% of the total ever awarded the prize. [4]

Figure 2 illustrates Female Nobel laureates (%) by decade, worldwide, 1901–2008. [4]

 nobel laureates

As the graph (Figure 2) shows during 1950s women did not win any Nobel Prizes although they have been nominated. For the Peace prize, for instance, nominations included educationalist Maria Montessori in 1951, birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger in both 1953 and 1955, and Helen Keller in 1954 for her work on disability and ability. However it was men, especially anti-communist men, who were pushed forward. The Cold War was at its height. The witch hunts for communists of the 1950s were reflected in the Nobel awards and in literature too: Winston Churchill was awarded the Literature prize in 1953, Ernest Hemingway in 1954, and Boris Pasternak in 1958. The fact that no woman was awarded any of the highest of international prizes between 1947 and 1962 almost certainly says more about social changes and the political imperative to be seen to be supporting “men of freedom” at that time, than about any lack of achievements among the women who might have qualified. [4]

The gender disparity in Nobel Prizes in science has generated cries of discrimination from some authors (e.g. Hilary Rose's Love, Power, and Knowledge: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences or Monique Frize's The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering). But looking only at the number of male and female winners of the Nobel could be misleading. To accurately assess the presence of gender bias, one must also consider the ratio of male and female competitors. It would be a mistake, for example, to assume that because there is a roughly equal proportion of males and females in the world population there should also be an even split of men and women among Nobel Laureates. The candidates for the Nobel are an extremely select population and the demographics of this group are not necessarily similar to the general population. [5]

Differing career interests, a Mathew effect (i.e. when better-known scientists tend to get more credit than less well-known scientists for the same achievements [6]), or other barriers to the highest echelons of science could all contribute to reducing women's representation among the hopefuls for the Nobel. In fact, a recent study by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and colleagues (published in PNAS [7]) demonstrated that, even today, employers in academic science hold gender biases. Still, it is important to make a distinction between prejudice that keeps women from becoming a candidate for the Nobel and prejudice that prevents female candidates from being chosen for the prize. In other words, independent of what gender biases women have to overcome to reach the apex of science, are the women who succeed in getting there fairly evaluated by the Academy? [5]

While Nobel prize winner nominees and laureates issue remains a controversial topic for discussion a variety of organizations exist which serve to promote the role of women in science, technology, and politics, and to enhance their recruitment and retention in these fields.

To name a few of the more prominent ones:


As Marie Curie once said (twice the winner of Nobel Prize in Physics 1903 and in Chemistry in 1911): “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

I hope the readers will find these words to be inspirational, and I encourage you - women of 21st century - to consider career in science, medicine, technology, mathematics, politics, or any other field (outside of the traditional housewife role of women of 20th century), and face the challenges it may bring with dignity.

This article is an introduction to series of assays containing biographies of women - Nobel Prize winners, the relentless discrimination they have faced in universities, both as students seeking scientific education and as researchers, and the passionate love of science that ultimately allowed them to prevail. [3]


[1] Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize

[2] Charts Bin (2011). All Nobel Prize Winners by Gender.

[3] Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (2001). Nobel Prize Women in Science. Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries.

[4] Danny Dorling (2010). Putting men on a pedestal: Nobel prizes as superhuman myths? Significance, Volume 7, Issue 3, pages 142–144.

[5] Stephanie Kovalchik (2012). Gender discrimination and the Nobel Prize, 1901-1953.

[6] Michael Strevens (2006). The Role of the Matthew Effect in Science.

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 37:159–170. 2006

[7] Corinne A. Moss-Racusin at el. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 16474–16479, vol. 109, no. 41.

[8] The Nobel Prize Internet Archive, section ‘Female Nobel Prize Laureates‘


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Maria Angela Capello

Stats are OK but analysis shou...

Thanks for the article. Excellent summary. I think part of the problem could be the NOMINATION process. Who is nominating? are t... Read More
Monday, 10 February 2014 03:31
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