Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The 2019 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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Time for the yearly Nobel-Prize update:

Compared to 2018, the historical male dominance has returned.

The three* regular Prizes (Physics/Chemistry/Physiology or Medicine) saw a total of nine laureates, all men.

*As noted for 2018, I will ignore Literature and Peace in the future. However, they would not have changed the picture this year, with both laureates being men.

The “extra-curricular” Economics Prize saw two men and one woman (Esther Duflo).

In total, there were eleven male to one female laureate, and 3.75 to 0.25 Prizes.*

*Note that, in my understanding, Duflo received a quarter, not a third, as the price was shared equally between Michael Kremer and the team of Duflo and her husband, Abhijit Banerjee.

Excursion on 2018:
The 2018 analysis was slightly hampered by the delayed awarding of the Literature Prize. It is noteworthy that the delayed award did go to a woman (Olga Tokarczuk), which makes 2018 a truly exceptional year for the women. Factoring in the rarity of a share of the Physics Prize, 2018 could be argued as even on par with 2009.

Excursion on the married couples:
With Duflo, we have another instance of a husband/wife team sharing a Price. While this is unremarkable when looking at husbands,* the proportion of female winners is sufficiently large that there could be a distortive effect, e.g. in that a brilliant male scientist has his merely good wife as a tag-along. Official information gives four** other cases, leaving us with five couples:

*Not because the reverse scenario of brilliant female with tag-along husband would be impossible, but because removing a few male winners would not affect the overall proportions.

**Not counting the also mentioned Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. While they did both win, they won in different fields in different years, which reduces the risk of a tag-along effect. To boot, Alva was awarded the Peace Prize (1982), which is not under consideration. Also note Marie Curie’s Chemistry Prize below.

  1. Duflo/Banerjee, Economics in 2019. Duflo is only the second female laureate (in the field in question).
  2. May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Medicine in 2014. May-Britt is one of twelve female laureates. With Gerty Cori (cf. below) this makes two in twelve or one in six.
  3. Gerty and Carl Cori, Medicine in 1947. She was the first female laureate by thirty years.
  4. Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Chemistry in 1935. Irène is still one of only five female laureates. She was only the second female recipient of any non-Literature/non-Peace Prize, behind only her mother (cf. below).
  5. Marie and Pierre Curie, Physics in 1903. Marie is still one of only three female laureates, and was the first by 60 years. Indeed, she was the first female laureate in any category, Literature and Peace included.

    (But note that she won the 1911 Chemistry Prize unshared, a few years after Pierre’s death. Moreover, that the delays between effort and award were far shorter back then, implying that Pierre need not have had any effect on the Chemistry Prize, even had he had one on the Physics Prize.)

(Additional data from a Wikipedia page listing female laureates. With reservations for oversights on my behalf.)

A similar tag-along effect could, obviously, exist even without a married relationship, when a team is jointly awarded a Prize but the contributions of the laureates vary in importance. Again, such an effect would have only a small impact on men, while the impact on women could be considerable. (Most winning teams have been all-male, implying that the number of male laureates could drop, but it would still be far larger than the number of female laureates, and the number of “male” Prizes would remain almost or entirely unchanged.)

Excursion on the Economics Prize:
With repeated awardings of the Peace and Literature Prizes for “being Left”, I have some fears that the Economy prize will eventually be similarly politicized. The motivation for the 2019 Price could point in this direction: “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”, which might be an indication that the award is less for scientific accomplishment and more for choice of topic. (I have not attempted the very considerable leg-work needed to judge this in detail.)

Other potential suspects include “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis” (William D. Nordhaus) and “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare” (Angus Deaton).

As a depressing contrast, this years Literature choice, Peter Handke, has been criticized for reasons unrelated to literary accomplishment—his opinions relating to Serbia et co. appear to be considered unacceptable.

(All motivations from official information.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 14, 2019 at 7:38 pm

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  1. […] bookstores ([1]) and mentioned the criticism against recent Nobel Literature winner Peter Handke ([2], […]


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