After a couple of good years for female Nobel laureates, only men won the prestigious Nobel prizes for their work in STEM this year, just as in 2019.
In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the chemistry prize for their work on the CRISPR gene editing system with Andrea Ghez sharing the physics prize for her discovery of a supermassive black hole. In 2018, two females were honoured – biochemical engineer, Frances Arnold for chemistry and Donna Strickland receiving the Nobel Prize in physics. Strickland and Ghez were only the third and fourth female physicists to be awarded Nobel prizes after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer 60 years later.
“I do work in a world of mostly men, so seeing mostly men win, doesn’t really ever surprise me” – Donna Strickland, Nobel winner 2018
In a published paper on women in STEM, Prof Mary K. Feeney, Lincoln Professor of Ethics in Public Affairs at Arizona State University in the United States, discussed the rarity of female Nobel laureates and raised questions about their exclusion from education and careers in science and the undervaluing of women’s contributions on science teams.
Women researchers had come a long way during the past century, but there is still overwhelming evidence that they remained underrepresented in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Studies proved that women who persist in these careers face explicit and implicit barriers to advancement. Bias is most intense in fields dominated by men with women lacking representation and they are often viewed as tokens or outsiders. This bias is even more intense for transgender women and non-binary individuals.
Traditional stereotypes hold that women “do not like maths” and “are not good at science.” Both men and women report these viewpoints, but researchers have empirically disputed them. Studies show girls and women avoid STEM education not because of lack of cognitive inability, but because of early exposure and experience with STEM, educational policies, cultural context, stereotypes and lack of exposure to role models.
For the past several decades, efforts to improve the representation of women in STEM fields focused on countering these stereotypes with educational reforms and individual programmes. These approaches are working. Women are increasingly expressing interest in STEM careers and pursuing STEM majors in college. They now make up 50% or more of workers in psychology and social sciences and are increasingly represented in the scientific workforce, though computer and mathematical sciences are still an exception.
According to the American Institute of Physics, women earn about 20% of bachelor’s degrees and 18% of PhD’s in physics, an increase from 1975 when women earned 10% of bachelor’s degrees and 5% of PhD’s in physics. More women are graduating with STEM PhD’s and earning faculty positions, but continue to encounter glass ceilings as they advance in their academic careers.
So what is not working for women?
In addition to issues related to the gender pay gap, the structure of academic science often makes it difficult for women to get ahead in the workplace and to balance work and life commitments. Bench science can require years of dedicated time in a laboratory. The strictures of the tenure-track process can make maintaining a work-life balance, responding to family obligations and having children or taking family leave difficult, if not impossible.
Additionally, working in male-dominated workplaces can leave women feeling isolated, perceived as tokens and susceptible to harassment. Women often are excluded from networking opportunities and social events, made to feel outside the lab culture, the academic department and the field, says Prof Mary Feeney.
Also, with fewer female colleagues, women are less likely to build relationships with female collaborators, support and advice networks. This isolation is exacerbated when women are unable to participate in work events or attend conferences because of family or child care responsibilities.
Universities, professional associations and federal funders have worked to address a variety of these structural barriers. Efforts include creating family-friendly policies, increasing transparency in salary reporting, providing mentoring and support programmes for women scientists, protecting research time for women scientists and targeting women for hiring, research support and advancement. However, these programmes have had mixed results.
For example, research indicates that family-friendly policies such as leave and on-site child care can exacerbate gender inequity, resulting in increased research productivity for men and increased teaching and service obligations for women.
The general public, media, university employees, students and professors, have ideas of what a scientist and a Nobel Prize winner look like. That image is predominantly male, white and older, which makes sense as 96% of the science Nobel Prize winners had fallen into those categories.
Implicit bias can work against women’s hiring, advancement and recognition of their work. Women seeking academic jobs are more likely to be viewed and judged based on personal information and physical appearance. This can affect women’s ability to publish research findings and gain recognition for their work. Men cite their own papers 56% more than women do. Known as the “Matilda Effect,” there is a gender gap in recognition, award-winning and citations.
Women’s solo-authored research takes twice as long to move through the review process. They are underrepresented in journal editorships, as senior scholars, lead authors and as peer reviewers. This marginalisation in research gatekeeping positions works against the promotion of women’s research.
When a woman becomes a world-class scientist, this bias works against the likelihood that she would be invited as a keynote or guest speaker to share her research findings, lowering both her visibility in the field and the likelihood that she will be nominated for awards. This gender imbalance is notable in how infrequently women experts are quoted in news stories on most topics. Research even shows that when people talk about male scientists and experts, they are more likely to use their titles and surnames, but refer to women by their first names.
Why does this matter?
Experiments showed that individuals referred to by their titles and surnames were more likely to be viewed as famous and eminent. In fact, one study found that calling scientists by their last names, led people to consider them 14% more deserving of a National Science Foundation career award. Seeing men as prize winners had been the history of science.
But all is not bad news. Recent research found that in biomedical sciences, women are making significant gains in winning more awards, though on average these awards are typically less prestigious and have lower monetary value.
“Addressing structural and implicit bias in STEM will hopefully prevent another half-century wait before the next woman is acknowledged with a Nobel Prize for her contribution to physics. I look forward to the day when a woman receiving the most prestigious award in science is newsworthy only for her science and not her gender,” Prof Feeney said.