Can Nobel Prizes and other scientific awards further women’s progress in STEM fields?

Published in:  Education

by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

The debate about the gender gap in STEM education has come back to the forefront recently with the nomination of Emmanuelle Charpentier (France) and Jennifer Doudna (USA), for the 2020 Nobel prize in Chemistry, and Andrea Gehz (USA) for Physics. Three out of eight laureates were women this year, a sign that things may be changing in the Nobel’s nomination procedure. So far the Nobel Prize has had a very poor track record in terms of diversity: in its 119 year history it is men who have dominated the list of laureates, and only 3% of the science awardees have been women. Can winning the Nobel prize further women’s progress in STEM? Yes, according to Emmanuelle Charpentier, who says she hopes this prize sends “a strong message” to young girls looking to enter science. The prestige of Nobel prizes is such that laureates become superstars literally overnight: they are interviewed on radio and TV, are invited to give seminars all around the world, and their research jumps to the top of the public’s consciousness. According to Marc Zimmer, who is Professor of Chemistry at Connecticut College, and has served as consultant for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017, awards and role models are very important, of course, but the historic lack of diversity among Nobel laureates points to larger societal issues, where equity and educational parity play a key role.

The role of awards and female role models in STEM careers

In general, women receive fewer scientific awards and prizes than their male counterparts, says Kaelyn Forde, a reporter, editor and producer who writes about women’s rights, politics, and the intersection of motherhood and public policy. Despite some progress in past years, the gender gap in STEM careers is still high. Fewer women in STEM means the relative pool of female candidates to be nominated for and awarded prizes is smaller. The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) has examined the awards allocation processes of 18 STEM disciplinary societies, with a combined membership of nearly 500,000 scientists. This survey found that women win a higher proportion of teaching and service awards than expected, rather than scholarly awards. The composition of the awards committees is a factor too: the presence of a woman on an award committee doubles the chances of a woman winning an award. Importantly, a 2019 study published by the US National Academy of Sciences found that 43% of women leave full-time STEM careers after becoming parents, compared to just 23% of men. When women leave the field, this too impacts awards eligibility.

This is not just about honour and accolades either: career advancement, research funding and opportunities, as well as pay, are all influenced by professional awards. While women earning doctorates in physics can expect to be paid as much as their male counterparts one year after graduation, the pay gap widens considerably after 10 to 15 years, with men earning 10% more than women, according to a study by Rachel Ivie, Senior Director for Education and Research at the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics. This study also identified inequities in the resources available to women in sciences, such as lab space and the ability to hire graduate students or employees to help with research. “The lack of women getting awards and prizes is a reflection of some of these inequalities they’ve experienced over their careers, and things take a snowball effect,” says Ivie. And without visible, recognised female scientists, young girls can be discouraged from entering science and mathematics fields in the first place, studies have found, says Kaelyn Forde. To put it in a very simplistic way, less women in STEM = less awards = less role models = less women in STEM.

How equity and educational parity issues affect STEM education

In a recent article commenting the 2020 Nobel nominations Marc Zimmer says the Nobel prize “imbalance” is closely linked to equity and educational parity issues. The imbalance affects not only women but minority groups in general, he says. Minorities, who comprise 30% of the U.S. population, make up only 14% of master’s students and just 6% of all Ph.D. candidates, he says. In 2017, there were more than a dozen areas in which not a single Ph.D. was awarded to a Black person, and these were primarily within the STEM fields. Reasons for these numbers include poverty, sub-par preparation in largely minority-serving schools of all levels, scarcity of role models and mentors and discrimination.

Though women make up more than half of the general population, they too count as an underrepresented group in many STEM disciplines, adds Zimmer. According to UNESCO’s most recent published data, only around 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3%), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5%) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8%). In OECD countries, fewer than 1 in 3 engineering graduates and fewer than 1 in 5 computer science graduates are girls. OECD says results from international large-scale studies such as PISA show that this not due to performance but other underlying issues. In addition to socio-economic issues many girls share with minority groups, UNESCO and OECD say gender stereotypes contribute to steering girls away from science education.


The list of STEM Nobel laureates since 1901, says Zimmer, sends the wrong message to young people, funding agencies, editorial boards and others about who does noteworthy science. He says it is indicative of the many biases and inequities that plague women and minorities in science. Colleges and universities host programs to support underrepresented groups in the sciences, he says, but “they are just Band-Aids on much bigger systemic issues in society”. Without economic equity and educational parity, it will be hard to achieve Nobel inclusiveness and diversity, he concludes. In the current Covid-19 era, we add, with the increasing shift to online learning, it will be important to ensure that existing obstacles to access to education are not compounded with difficulties in access to internet and technological devices, which could create further inequalities.

cApStAn’s involvement in international educational assessments

cApStAn has been commissioned with maximising cross-language and cross-country comparability of various international large-scale assessments such as the OECD PISA since 2000. We are also proud to have been asked to verify the translations – with a view to maximizing comparability across language versions – of the ICILS data collection instruments. We have had the privilege of working with IEA for 19 years, including on other flagship projects such as TIMSS, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and PIRLS, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. You can check here more details about our work in the knowledge and skills sector at capstan.be



Photo credit: Nobel prize Twitter account