Until this year, only 19 women had won a Nobel Prize for science – just 3% of the total winners. But the Nobel Committee’s decision to recognise Donna Strickland and Frances Arnold, respectively, with the 2018 chemistry and physics prizes, suggests this imbalance is finally being addressed.
The Nobel recognises outstanding contributions to humankind, so it should go without saying that the outstanding women working in the fields of science and medicine should be recognised for their contributions. And there are many who deserve to be seen through awards and media representations. But perhaps more importantly, the image we see of women in science from things like the Nobel Prizes can make a difference to what happens within the field.
Women laureates are grossly underrepresented in all of the Nobel Prize categories, especially when you consider their participation in these areas today. Globally, women still represent less than a third of the science workforce, but that’s far more than the 3% recognised by the Nobels.
Even in the last few years, as more women have entered scientific fields, they have been notably absent among Nobel prize winners. The last woman to win the chemistry prize was Ada Yonath in 2009. And before Donna Strickland there hadn’t been a female physics laureate since Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963. The Nobel Committee has said it is taking steps to improve its record on women but that it would likely be five to ten years before we see a significant change in distribution.
The reality is that women are still under- and misrepresented in almost every facet of science. The numbers start with a lower proportion of female science students at secondary level and gradually decline at every stage of education and leadership. For example, women are underrepresented as first authors of scientific research papers and their papers are much less likely to be cited by others. By the time it gets to candidates for the Nobel Prize, there are very few women left to choose from.
You can add to that the persistence of outdated ideas around gender differences within science. Just recently, a CERN professor was suspended for sexist comments linked to debunked science made to a room full of women scientists. In many ways, it made Strickland’s winning of the physics Nobel all the more sweet but demonstrates the lingering mischaracterisation of women in science both inside and outside of the profession.
With all this mind, it’s important to remember that media representation matters. It gives women and girls opportunities to literally see themselves, in this case, as scientists. We know from research that female role models can make a difference to women’s decisions about whether or not to start a scientific career. And more generally, media representations help us to understand ourselves and others. So, if images of successful women are missing from the picture girls and women have of science through the media, it can limit the extent to which they will see themselves as scientists.
We need to normalise the representation of all women in science. More women winning the Nobel Prize, and more news articles celebrating those women’s achievements, are just the start. Changing how women scientists are seen can also be achieved through film and television representations, news articles, Wikipedia entries and so on.
Globally, for example, women made up only 19% of experts appearing in television, radio and print news reports. When women scientists are made less visible in this way, they are, in the words of feminist thinker Gaye Tuchman, “symbolically annihilated”. In other words, they are effectively omitted, trivialised and condemned by the mass media.
While there are many examples of women scientists in film and television, they’re now starting to appear more often as lead characters rather than as sidekicks to men – for example, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity. Recent films such as Hidden Figures and the reboot of Ghostbusters have made the female leads’ role as scientists a key focus and driver of the storylines. This kind of change is important for moving women scientists from, as feminist critic bell hooks puts it, the “margins to the centre”.
Even the number and content of Wikipedia entries about women scientists is important, as the crowd-edited encyclopedia helps document what society values and exposes people to cultural heritage. But research shows that Wikipedia has a poor record on gender equality in terms of including women’s biographies.
This was highlighted when it emerged that, before her Nobel win, Strickland’s contributions to science had been deemed not significant enough to warrant her own Wikipedia page. Such examples underline the importance of efforts like those of Jessica Wade to increase the number of Wikipedia entries about women scientists’ contributions.
Changing all these media representations together can help more people to see women as scientists and to value the contributions that they make. This will empower women scientists today and inspire more girls to join the next generation. Perhaps then, a Nobel Prize winner being female won’t be such big news and the focus will be on their science rather than their gender.