Gender equality is one of the defining issues of our times. The Nobel Prize shows that science is far from it.
What do Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Emil von Behring, Sully Prudhomme and Henry Dunant have in common? All of them got 1901 when they were first awarded Nobel Prize Received – and they are all men, old and white.
One might imagine that after the liberation and feminism movements, the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2021 will be more diverse. But women are still hardly considered in scientific fields.
This year’s award ceremony was no different: the Nobel Prize in Physics went to three men, two men each for Chemistry and Medicine, and the Nobel Prize in Literature went to one man, Abdulrazak Gurnah. The only Nobel Peace Prize was accompanied by journalist Maria Russa in addition to Dmitry Murato, a woman.
“It’s already very disappointing this year,” says Andrea Lothar, acting head of Competence Center Women in Science and Research (CEWS) in Cologne. She followed the Nobel Prize prize closely and is clearly disappointed that no woman has received a prize in the scientific field. “It wasn’t like there weren’t any candidates,” says Lothar. In recent years, the proportion of female researchers has increased worldwide, but only men have received the award.
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What is evident from year to year is dominated by mainly American, but also British and German scientists who win Nobel Prizes in scientific fields.
“I certainly believe that the men who received the award deserved it. But there would have been women who deserved it.” This was the case in the past. Liss Meitner, for example, was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission. However, since she was a woman and a Jew in Germany, she was not taken into account and received by her colleague Otto Hahn.”
Another example was Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Astrophysicists discovered the signal from a neutron star in 1967. “But her doctoral supervisor got the Nobel Prize,” explains Lothar. In other areas too, women have been neglected and instead men have benefited.
Women’s achievements will not be recognized
According to Lothar, the achievements of women are not noticed, they are not recognized and they are not visible. It was this lack of visibility that appeared in 2018 with physics Nobel laureate Donna Strickland: “It was only after winning the Nobel Prize that her biography was published on Wikipedia.”
There are women in science, but there are still significantly more men. For Lothar this is a social and structural problem. “In many countries, including Germany, the traditional view of the family still prevails: women look after the children, which means that it is not possible to combine family and work.” These stereotypes will only be gradually dismantled.
Career Structures in Science Based on the “All or Nothing” Principle
In addition, many countries have career structures in the sciences that follow the “all or nothing” principle. “It means something like this: Either I get the professorship or I have to stay on Hertz IV,” says Lothar. This leads to the fact that many women – sometimes even men – drop out because they do not want to be involved in these career structures.
In addition to structural and social problems, there is still a small number of women in science because of the problem of justice. “Science provides access to resources, to career opportunities, and when there are exclusion mechanisms, it is an equity issue.” But bringing more diversity to research teams will be so important, Lothar says. “Because if you don’t look at it from a different perspective, some results come out that are not representative of society.”
Initiatives and Programs to Promote Women in Science
But what can you do about it? There are several concrete measures: in Germany, federal and state programs for female professors aim to increase the number of female professors on the one hand and strengthen equality structures in universities on the other.
“And a lot is already being done,” says Lothar. In Germany and the European Union, women have been promoted for over 30 years. Gender equality policy in universities should also help attract more women to research. The so-called “gender knowledge” is also important to Lothar. According to Lothar, people have to reflect on structural discrimination and gender stereotypes. “As a woman or a man, you don’t automatically do that, you have to think about it first.”
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