Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The 2016 Nobel Prizes II: Women and the Nobel Prize

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One of my articles was almost upset by the 2009 unprecedented naming of no less than five female laureates, including a historically very rare Chemistry Prize and a first Economics Prize. I left a corresponding disclaimer that I would revisit some issues if this turned out to be a normal state of affairs.

It did not*: The following year saw not one single female laureate, neither did 2012—and the same applies to this year. 2011 did see three, but they all shared the Peace Prize. The remaining intervening years saw one or two laureates, of which only two came in scientific fields (the 2014 and 2015 Prizes in “Physiology or Medicine” each saw a woman among the three** winners.) The others were all Peace or Literature Prizes.

*Here and elsewhere I draw my numbers from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_Nobel_laureates and http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/women.html.

**The science Prizes are almost always shared, typically between the maximum three laureates allowed per Prize and year. Here and elsewhere, I will assume equal shares for the sake of simplicity and of avoiding leg-work. I do know of at least one historical deviation, however: Curies first Prize was shared in equal halves between the Curies and Henri Becquerel, with Marie and Pierre effectively receiving a quarter each.

Counting in 2016, we have seen a total of 8 female laureates with a total of 4 and 1/6 Prizes in seven years—a little more than one laureate and clearly less than one Prize per year. For comparison, the (admittedly cherry-picked) years 1945–1947 saw three laureates and 1 and 5/6 Prizes for very comparable numbers. 1963–1966 women did almost as well in numbers and scored in both Physics and Chemistry—in the 50 (!) years since, they have scored one Chemistry laureate and not one single Physics laureate.

In other words, there is at this juncture no reason to assume that we have entered a new era, nor that women are being artificially held back, as naive feminists like to claim: That the science awards have seen so little change, or even change for the negative, while Literature and Peace Prizes regularly go to women, is a clear sign that the main underlying reason is one of inherent differences between the sexes in these fields, be it with regard to ability, priorities, interest, or some other factor. How the Literature and Peace Prizes should be interpreted with regard to ability* is very unclear, due to the extreme subjectiveness** and the obvious recurring political agendas behind the awards; however, these are definitely areas where women are more inclined to get involved than in the sciences.

*But, outside of the scope of Nobel Prizes, I do note for the record that several of my own favorite authors have been women.

**Bear in mind that while the sciences can be subjective too, e.g. regarding what discovery is the more important, the problem is far smaller there. If worst comes to worst, almost any result in, say, Physics is something that we can test today or will be able to test in due time. There is no such test for works of fiction and many works lauded by one qualified observer is consider garbage by another. (Including the works of semi-recent Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek—the choice of which caused a dissenting member of the election committee to resign in protest…)

As an aside, I see at least two possible explanations for the anomalous results of 2009: The one is sheer co-incidence, the equivalent of drawing a one-color poker hand. This is unlikely for any given hand, but keep drawing hands and it will eventually happen. The other is that female candidates were given an artificial leg up. In fact, this type of artificial support is extremely common in Sweden, where the drive to have men and women share everything 50–50 can be virtually pathological. Many consider the relatively low number of female laureates a failure of the election committees—or even of the respective field of science it self! They simple fail to understand that this type of award must be about accomplishment, not feeling good; about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 1, 2016 at 9:56 pm

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