Why so few women win Nobel in science?

By no means can the Norwegian Nobel Committee of Swedish Academy for Physics, Chemistry and physiology or medicine be called gender equal.

In recognising women in science the committee has been more than sexist (against women) and has worked in sharp repudiation of the basic tenets of science which is perceived as being a performance-based activity and career. You are rewarded for what you produce, independent of gender, ethnicity, etc. Ideally, science should always provide an even playing field for men and women.

Alas! This, apparently, has never been the policy of the committee that selects Nobel laureates for Physics, Chemistry and physiology or medicine. Disparities — glaring and clear — still exist. This year, eight scientists have been named as Nobel laureates in the three branches of science. None of them are women. One may argue that there is not a single woman scientist in the world at present who may deserve the award.

Even if we accept the argument (though not very happily) may we ask to how many women has the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Prize. It may sound incredible but the truth is only 15 women have been given the award in the past 100 years and more. Since 2009 not a single woman has been recognised by the Nobel Committee.

Well, if this isn't gender bias then it is time now for us to erase the word 'sexism' from our lexicon.

In the past 100 years and more the Nobel Committee has conveniently ignored at least six women who ought to have been awarded Nobel Prize in science. Each of them, despite being ignored by the Swedish Academy, has made fundamental contributions in the development of science and added "to our understanding of the world."

Austria-born physicist Lise Meitner, American astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, German mathematician Emmy Noether, British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, Irish Jocelyn Bell Burnell and micro-biologist Esther Lederberg have all been ignored. These six women certainly deserved the award.

Nobel Committee's deck has always been stacked against women. Or how else can we explain Rosalind Franklin not been recognised? In May this year Jane J. Lee exposed how Franklin was denied her due. In 1962, Francis Crick was awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, along with fellow scientists James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.

Franklin was also a part of the team along with Watson and Wilkins that made the discovery. Her data were critical to Crick and Watson's work. But it turns out that Franklin would not have been eligible for the prize — she had passed away four years before Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the prize, and the Nobel is never awarded posthumously.

"But even if she had been alive, she may still have been overlooked. Like many women scientists, Franklin was robbed of recognition throughout her career."

Today when we study astronomy we should remain grateful to Annie Jump Cannon and her team of women who at Harvard Observatory undertook for more than 40 years a painstaking task of "mapping and classifying every star in the sky."

Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow in their blog published by Huffington Post wrote, "When disagreement over how exactly to classify stars arose, Cannon came up with the logical system based on spectral absorption lines. She alone observed and classified more than 200,000 stars over a 40-year career." She was surprisingly ignored and her contributions in science were overlooked.

The epitaph of Lise Meitner says, "Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity."

The Swedish Academy also ignored her critical contributions to science. She was denied her Nobel. "Her contributions to the research were central and she had an especially important role in working out the basic math. Her colleague Otto Hahn, with whom Meitner worked closely for thirty years, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery."

Even after an element was named after her Lise Meitner, a brilliant and a pioneering nuclear physicist, was never given the Nobel award which she so richly deserved. She discovered nuclear fission — a epoch breaking discovery.

The story of every single woman who did not get their Nobel is a story of neglect, denial and male bias against females — a "complicated tangle of sexism, politics, and ethnicity."

Are we to believe that there aren't enough talented woman scientists in the world at present? Are we to believe that in the past four years not one woman scientist has made any significant contribution to warrant Nobel Prize in science? Are we to believe that in the past 112 years only 15 women deserved the award in science? How would the Swedish Academy explain ignoring the six women?

These are some of the open questions which are being asked for past 50 years and more.

And for past 50 years and more no satisfactory or convincing answer has been offered. In fact, nomination database of the past fifty years for Nobel Prize in science proves a huge gender discrimination against women.

Even if we accept that presence of women in higher science and scientific researches are perceptibly fewer in number than their male counterpart one cannot that process of nominating and awarding Nobel Prize in science has always been a legacy of controversy steeped in sexism. We are waiting, with bated breath, to see when shall this gender discrimination end.

The author is the Opinion Editor of Times of Oman.


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