Since it was founded in 1901, only 49 of the 923 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women, and 2017 was not one of those years. The last prize of the year, for economic sciences, went to Richard Thaler, meaning that all six prizes of 2017 went to men, apart from the Nobel Peace Prize which went to a coalition of over 100 NGOs. Journalists attended the prize announcement and, given the absence of female honourees, one asked the committee why women win so few prizes.
Vice chair of the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation, Göran Hansson, said:
'We are very proud of the laureates who were awarded the prize this year. But we are disappointed looking at the larger perspective that more women have not been awarded. Part of it is that we go back in time to identify discoveries. We have to wait until they have been verified and validated, before we can award the prize. There was an even larger bias against women then. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.
But I’m not sure that’s the entire explanation. We and other prize-awarding institutions have taken measures. If you look at the Nobel Prize committees, there are women chairing three of the six committees. There are female scientists on all the committees. So I don’t think there is any substantial, er, male chauvinist bias in the committees. The committees have invited—have taken special efforts to identify—women scientists to be nominated for the prize. But that has started this year, because we are concerned that we may not get enough nominations for female scientists.
I suspect there are many more women who are deserving to be considered for the prize. Therefore, we have started to identify leading women scientists and have invited for them to be nominated. We will, starting next year, indicate in our invitation to nominate women scientists and consider ethnic and geographic diversity. Finally, we are going to have a conference this winter with the different prize committees to discuss this issue. So we are concerned, and we are taking measures. I hope that in five years or ten years, we will see a very different situation.'
Adding to Hansson's comments, Per Stromberg, the chair of the committee that gave the prize in economics, said:
'I can underscore what you just said. I think there are two important points.
First is that we are indeed awarding research, where discoveries were made in the '70s, '80s, early '90s, during a time when we had much more of a gender bias in economics as well as in many other sciences. It basically means that, as time goes by, the fraction of women Nobel laureates will increase. You can look at some of the prizes given to younger economists, the gender distribution is more even.
Second is that we are very concerned. What you have to realize is that the committee doesn’t freely decide on the prizes. We aggregate the opinion of the nominators all over the world. We are reliant on their nominations. So if there’s anything we can do, it’s a call for the nominating bodies to take this issue very seriously.'
So there you have it. Nobel Prizes are growing with the times, supposedly, and diversity will be playing a big part in their nomination and selection processes moving forward. The Nobel Prize committee's concern for the lack of gender diversity amongst prize-winners is something that they're determined to work on, with vice chair Hansson adding to the conversation: 'consider this a request to all our nominators for all the prizes to consider women scientists who have made important contributions. Please.' Here's hoping that 2018 sees the 50th female Nobel Prize winner and possibly more.