The Nobel Prize is arguably the most coveted recognition of academic and humanitarian excellence. It is awarded ‘to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind’ as stated in the last will of Alfred Nobel in 1895. Since then, every October the world watches with bated breath as a new set of ordinary people are introduced who have accomplished extraordinary feats.
The Noble’s bias issues resolved?
The fact that every year new potentials are chosen for the prize, doesn’t mean we should view it through rose- tinted glasses. Representation has always been a big problem when it comes to the Nobel. As it turns out, it’s not only the Oscars that have an issue with a lack of female voices. Since 1901 only 57 women have received the award, compared to 876 men. A 2019 study by Per Lunneman et al. found a greater than 96 per cent probability of bias against women — especially when it comes to STEM. It concluded that; ‘there is not an equal possibility for both genders to be nominated for a Nobel Prize’, citing cultural hindrances as well as the hierarchical structure of STEM that makes attainment of permanent staff member positions difficult.
Against this bleak reality, the 2020 Nobel Prize ceremony offers a refreshing and much needed step towards concrete change. This year Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first ever all-women team to be honoured by a Nobel Science Prize. Their work on developing CRISPR-Cas9, a breakthrough genome editing tool, has made them the sixth and seventh women respectively to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Furthermore, Andrea Ghez became the fourth woman since Marie Curie to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on black holes. The Nobel Prize in Literature went to Louis Glück for her ‘unmistakable poetic voice that makes individual existence universal’.
The ideal and beyond
Beyond the profound global impact made by this year’s laureates, this welcome surprise has sparked debate regarding ways to ensure that 2020 does not become a one-off. Research culture needs to change from the grass-roots upwards so that women in academia are paid equally and start holding more positions of power. Additionally, continuing this pattern of awarding teams rather than individuals will help mitigate the overshadowing of researchers by their higher ranking peers and make science a more collaborative effort.
In an ideal world, gender identity is no longer a factor that is disadvantageous to professional success. In this world we’ve reached a point where we don’t need to have this discussion because there is equal opportunity and equal evaluation of merit. That’s the ideal. But in our world, to reach that glorious point and beyond we must continue to address the issues while celebrating the plight of these incredible women who have beaten the odds.