Once Again, No Female Nobel Winners in Science

Christophe André, Scientific American, October 4, 2017

Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Egyptian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia was stoned in public by order of the Bishop of Alexandria. As the cleric saw it, Hypatia had too many irritating features: she was a woman, a pagan, and in particular much too smart. In human societies, it always seems as if men, from time immemorial, have done everything possible to deny women access to knowledge and power, which are often linked. This hold began to loosen only during the Renaissance, when girls were (very) gradually allowed, and then encouraged, to pursue the same studies as boys. But the road has been long, and there is still quite a way to go.

Consider, for example, the Nobel Prize, a universal symbol of excellence and the subject of Dix-Sept Femmes prix Nobel des sciences (“Seventeen Women Who Won a Nobel Prize for Science” by Hélène Merle-Béral, professor of hematology at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. As the title indicates, only 17 women have been awarded a science Nobel Prize since its inception in 1901. That amounts to three percent of all prizewinners. Why should that be?

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The second explanation has to do with male stereotypes of women, which are nowhere close to disappearing. A 2015 survey showed that 67 percent of men believe that women lack the capacity to become first-rate scientists. Hence the unconscious temptation of parents and teachers to discourage girls from these careers.

Most worrisome, however, is that the same survey showed that 66 percent of women believe it too! This is the third, more insidious hurdle: women’s own internalization of stereotypes about themselves leads most of them to self-limit and to voluntarily reject careers connected to science and power.

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Clichés about the intellectual superiority of men are being rejected and fought with ever greater frequency: we are on the right track to improvement. But women need to be aware of their susceptibility to the “stereotype threat.” They can also take heart from the example of pioneering scientist Marie Curie: this extraordinary woman is still the only person to have received Nobel prizes in two different disciplines (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911).

Gentlemen, can you top that?

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