It’s October, which means it’s hard to avoid the annual Nobel Prize announcements and flurry of resulting press. As a woman in science, I’ve learned to anticipate these with both excitement and anxiety. I love celebrating the achievements of my science colleagues around the world, and I am grateful that our society has an award for scientists that is commonly recognized in the popular press.
But the track record of the Nobel Committee overlooking accomplishments of scientists who are not white men is deeply depressing. This year’s Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry and Physics were awarded to all men: eight white and one Asian. To be sure, these awards are all well-deserved, but zero women out of nine awards is newsworthy—or it should be newsworthy, if it didn’t happen almost every year.
With the latest round of Nobel Prizes, I and many of my colleagues are particularly mourning the fact that Vera Rubin, one of the great pioneers in astrophysics, was continually overlooked by the Nobel Committee before her death in 2016. Rubin did nothing short of systematically verify the existence of dark matter—an invisible and still unidentified substance that makes up roughly 85 percent of the matter in the universe. She wasn’t the first to find evidence of dark matter, but she was the one to demonstrate its presence convincingly, which resulted in a paradigm shift in our understanding of the cosmos.
Given that the Nobel Prize in Physics this year was awarded to astronomers, with half of the prize being awarded for “contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos,” an area to which Rubin’s work were clearly foundational, it feels like salt in a wound. My Twitter feed has exploded this week with tweets to this effect:
I’ve actually for the most part stopped taking the Nobel Prize in physics seriously but I will always ache for Vera Rubin especially on days when people get awards for work that includes hers— Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein ����♀️ ������️�� (@IBJIYONGI) October 8, 2019
Congratulations to the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics, they all did terrific work and I know it must mean a lot to them. But personally I can’t take it seriously, knowing the committee did everything it could to avoid awarding Vera Rubin only because she was a woman.— Grave Robbert McNees (@mcnees) October 8, 2019
Congratulations to this year's Nobel Prize winners in physics. However, I would like you to remember Vera Rubin who discovered the existence of dark matter but did not get the Nobel Prize. She passed away 2016 and now it is too late. #WomenInSTEM https://t.co/hUP0eXkWMH— Abbasinejad Enger, PhD. (@ShirinAEnger) October 9, 2019
sigh... yet again the three science nobels awarded to nine men, and diversity is sorely lacking.. �� and the physics Nobel awarded for dark matter, but not to Vera Rubin .. STEM has a long way to go..— cae@lab!���� (@tarigenticae) October 9, 2019
We did, at least have a bit of a reprieve last year, when two women were among the awardees of these most prestigious of prizes in science. Frances Arnold shared last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on enzymes, and Donna Strickland shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on lasers. That was the good news. The bad news: of the 212 individuals who have been Nobel laureates in physics so far, Strickland was only the third woman. Of the 183 winners in chemistry, Arnold was only the fifth woman.
These women have grit at superhuman levels. Arnold has survived breast cancer, been widowed (twice), raised three sons, and lost one son to an accident. A Wikipedia page request for Strickland was reportedly denied the previous spring, because her work wasn’t famous enough. And despite being a member of the faculty at Waterloo for over 20 years and previously winning a number of awards (including the prestigious Cottrell Scholars Award and Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship), Strickland was not promoted to full professor (a rank that faculty typically reach after about 12 years) until she won the Nobel Prize. Her co-winner, Gérard Mourou? He is the star of a horrifyingly sexist video with young women in lab coats doing a striptease.
Given that Nobel Prizes are among the most visible accolades for scientists in popular culture, awarding them almost exclusively to white men has even bigger impact than demoralizing women scientists around the world; it supports a severe problem with stereotypes in science, which kids internalize early on. As part of an astronomy outreach program that I direct, Dark Skies Bright Kids, we ask the children to draw a scientist on both the first and last day of each semester-long club. Predictably, their first drawings are dominated by white men in lab coats doing crazy experiments.
However, the majority of volunteers with the program are women, and the kids are exposed to this gender breakdown throughout the semester. The scientist drawings at the end of the club are markedly different. In fact, as one boy was deciding what to draw, we overheard him say, “I guess most scientists are women, so I better draw a woman.” The power of role models is strong and can be damaging or empowering.
A recent study published by Kevin Flaherty, an astronomer at Williams College, shows that despite increases in the fraction of astronomy PhDs awarded to women (from 22 percent to 34 percent between 1992 and 2013), women are leaving the academic labor market at a rate three to four times higher than men. Women of color face additional challenges. For example, according to a report released in 2015, 77 percent of black women have to “provide more evidence of competence than others to prove themselves to colleagues” (known as the “Prove-It-Again” bias), compared to 64 percent of women overall.
In the 124 years since the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry were established, not a single black person has been awarded either prize. Three Hispanic men have been among the recipients in physics and chemistry, but no Hispanic women. Given that only 3.9 percent of physical and related scientists in the U.S. workforce are black, and 5.1 percent Hispanic, the lack of diversity in the top prizes is not surprising.
I have worked in many teams while carrying out scientific research, ranging from projects in which I was the only woman to a few in which men were the minority. My experience has been well-aligned with the study Google carried out on what makes an effective team; number one on the list is “psychological safety,” which enables teams to “harness the power of diverse ideas.” If all of the team members approach a problem with the same way, there is little value added by any given member. But, if everyone comes to the problem with a different perspective and background, every person has the potential to come up with an idea that could break new ground. If we’d had a more diverse set of ideas to draw from, would we be further along in curing cancer, stopping global warming, or ending starvation?
I fear that we have a long way to go before a woman winning a Nobel Prize in science isn’t newsworthy in itself. I am grateful that last year my children got two new women Nobel laureates as role models in science, but I also hate holding up these women as tokens of what is possible. I would like to know how many men have won the Nobel Prize in addition to raising three boys, being widowed (twice) and surviving cancer.
But the next time I face a hardship in my career, I will ask myself, “What would Vera Rubin do?”