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The Uphill Battle for Recognition for Women in Science

For well over a century the Nobel Prize has brought science into the limelight annually by honoring a few exceptional achievements. There are many deserving scientists worthy of the Prize, but only a few receive it. Thus, many who deserve it—both men and women—do not get it. But women are especially underrepresented among the recipients. In our male-dominated society, historically, relatively few women had the possibilities to fulfill the promise of their talent and still fewer received proper recognition when they succeeded. Recently, more and more attention has been paid to this problem. Even though the situation is slowly improving, women are still underrepresented in the highest echelons of science.

In the history of science, women appeared rather late—roughly at the beginning of the 20th century. Of course, there were exceptional women who dared to enter this field of human enterprise much earlier. Prominent examples include Hypatia (ca. 370‒415 C.E.), Sophia Brache (1556‒1643), Caroline Herschel (1750‒1848), and Marie Paulse Lavoisier (1758‒1836).

In a major development, universities started opening their doors to women during the second half of the 19th century. In 1903 the first woman, Marie Curie, received a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics together with her husband, Pierre Curie. This conspicuous feat drew the public’s attention to women in science. Even more importantly, it inspired and encouraged many young women to pursue careers in science. However, for women to enter the highest ranks of science and be accepted by their male peers was another matter and this problem has not yet entirely disappeared.

“The Posthumous Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Volume 2. Ladies in Waiting” for the Nobel Prize is dedicated to those women scientists who became successful and renowned in their respective fields yet failed to win the highest recognition, the Nobel Prize.

Along with a discussion of women scientists who did not receive a well-deserved Nobel Prize, we should also acknowledge those few who actually did. As of 2017, 48 women had received a Nobel Prize; just 5.4% of all honorees1. This is even lower, 3%, if limited to the three science categories (physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine). The distribution of women among the three science categories is rather uneven: there are two for physics; four for chemistry; and the remaining twelve for physiology or medicine.

The institution of the Nobel Prize has undergone a metamorphosis over the past decades of its nearly 120 year history, even though its rules of operation have remained the same. Today, in our globalized and shrinking world, the Prize has become a truly world-wide affair, no longer confined in its scope of attention to the “Western” world. It has also made strides in becoming increasingly inclusive in other aspects, such as paying more attention to women scientists and their discoveries and to young associates who make crucial, sometimes decisive, contributions to the discoveries selected for recognition.

This progress has magnified past errors and misjudgments in the awarding of Nobel Prizes. The errors and misjudgments have been of two kinds: one is omission, and the other is what we might call commission. Omission is when a deserving discovery was never recognized by the Prize; commission is when the discovery did receive recognition, but there was an error in the choice of the laureate(s).

The most conspicuous error of omission is the fact that the discovery by Oswald T. Avery and his two young associates that DNA is the substance of heredity remains without a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As for commission, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission makes the blunder in failing to recognize Lise Meitner for her contribution, with either a share of the chemistry Prize or with a physics Prize. Whereas the Avery/DNA lapse could be ascribed to shortsightedness on the part of the Swedish judges, the Meitner/nuclear fission omission is more complicated. It has the marks of biased considerations of politics, money, intrigue, and prejudice. It also appears that strong personalities with a partisan agenda played a role, though it would be too simplistic to ascribe the outcome merely to such influence. There is a curious difference between the Avery/DNA omission and the Meitner/nuclear fission commission cases. In the Avery/DNA case, the Nobel Foundation has made a rare and unique admission of error. In case of the Meitner/nuclear fission, there was an investigation decades later. This in itself indicated the uneasiness of the Nobel Prize institution regarding her exclusion. According to the result, though, the foundation found it impossible to overcome the hurdle of admitting error. The oversight was left to its previous uncertainty, perhaps waiting for a future, more objective evaluation.

The rules of the Nobel Prize institution have hardly changed over the decades, yet our world has undergone enormous changes. Here I single out only the degree and speed of communication that even as closed an institution as the Nobel Prize organization cannot completely ignore. Considering the long-term progress made by women as they take up significant roles in science in all its strata, I find it safe to predict growing recognition of their achievements.

Read the full chapter for free.

1. Figures accurate as of the time of the ebook’s publication in 2017.

This post is an excerpt from ‘Women Scientists: An Uphill Battle for Recognition’, The Posthumous Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Volume 2. Ladies in Waiting for the Nobel Prize.” 
Chapter Author: Magdolna Hargittai
Volume Editors: Vera V. Mainz, E. Thomas Strom
Publication Date (Web): December 14, 2018
Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

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