Nobel (biased) Prize winners #DiversityJC recap

For this October edition of our #DiversityJC, we decided to discuss the recent Nobel Prize winners and note how they fit the profile of a white and male scientist. The introductory post is here.

Statistic show that there’s a big gender disparity in Nobel Prize winners since 1904. Not only that, but the Nobel Prize overwhelmingly awarded to certain nationalities! There’s no doubt that this is real, so the question is – why ?  Why men from certain backgrounds? Bias vs genius-ability? Or, historically, can the bias be partially explained by women joining workforce at a later time? What other factors are at play?

For one, prestigious funding is predominantly awarded to men. (although this depends on location and field). This gives them a leg-up from the get-go and throughout their careers. This also applies, on a grander scale, when we look to scientists working in developing nations: The support for research, not only in funding but also in accessible infrastructure, labs, personnel, and other resources, is much, much smaller.Even when funding is available, funding (and also Nobel Prize) judges responsible for dolling out awards are mainly male. They likely also suffer from the same unconscious bias as the rest of us – but with no personal experience to call that into question.

In addition:

The “lone genius” myth revolves around the sole genius works alone, toiling away as no one else can keep up with them…Is this really a thing?  Research and a closer look at history tells us we need to give up the lone genius myth – but it holds fast. Moreover, we still (unconsciously perhaps) believe that the lone genius is a man. In the case of prestigious awards like the Nobel Prize, it allows lone white men to receive the recognition of a team, or of the scientists that went before them. Maybe another side is that men who downplay collaborators achieve more prizes, or it’s easier to downplay role of women/minorities due to bias.

The ‘lone genius’ also ignores the work of many others that supported scientists so they could do ground-breaking work:

So less female prizes maybe also due to motherhood tasks? Not necessarily. It’s more the narrative that you need to dedicate every waking hour to science to be successful, in addition to traditional roles men and women are expected to play at home/with children vs. work. Moreover, there are women out there without kids and totally dedicated to science! This is another part of the puzzle, and potentially more important historically, but not the whole story.

Indeed, in addition to these aspects, women and minorities struggle against bias in throughout their careers, against microaggressions and their stereotype threat. They are hired less, funded less, tenured less. How, then, do we deal with the convergence of these issues in prestigious awards like the Nobel Prize?

In theory this is a good idea – but it would always be seen as consolation prize.

In the end, consensus was that the bias in Nobel Prize winners is a multifaceted problem: Biased funding, biased judges, lone genius myths, and motherhood all seem to play a role in biased Nobel Prize.


Thanks to all that joined us, and see you next month!






The Nobel Prize Can’t Stop Awarding White Men

The forgotten story of the woman who discovered how animals get their shape.

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism

Nomination and Selection of Nobel Laureates


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