For some time there have been complaints that there has not been “equity” in Nobel Prizes: that too few women and people of color have won them. These inequities could result from several causes, or a combination of causes, but the one that’s always touted by those who complain is existing structural bias and discrimination. (See this article in Nature for such indictments by two powerful women in science, though it doesn’t mention the Nobels.) The equation of inequities in representation with ongoing bias is a pillar of Ibram Kendi’s ideas on anti-racism.
But there are two other reasons besides structural bias in science. One is that the dearth of women and people of color reflects past discrimination, so that only now, with biases diminishing towards zero, women and people are color are entering the pipeline to achievement—but haven’t yet reached the stage of professional accomplishment that would garner a Nobel.
The last explanation is a difference in preference coupled with comparative advantage. It’s well known that, at least in some Western countries, women score as well as men on science achievement tests, and score better than men in reading. That is, women are better overall than men. This means that any lack of achievement of women scientists cannot be due to a comparative lack of scientific ability. Rather, researchers have suggested that women prefer going into the humanities because they are better at it, and want to do what they’re better at (“comparative advantage”). Alternatively it may be that STEM fields simply aren’t as attractive to women as to men. All of these are suggested in the BBC article. (I don’t know any such data on people of color, but of course in the U.S. black and Hispanics score lower than whites and Asians on tests of reading, math, and science.)
But let me quote from the BBC piece:
The head of the academy that awards the Nobel Prizes in science has said it will not introduce gender quotas.
Goran Hansson, head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said they want people to win “because they made the most important discovery”.
Since its inception in 1901, 59 Nobel Prizes have gone to women. [JAC: There have been 975 prizes total. The 59 Prizes to women involve 58 women as Marie Curie won twice.]
Maria Ressa was the only woman honoured this year. Marie Curie was the first woman to get the prize – and remains the only woman to get it twice.
“It’s sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past, but still existing. And there’s so much more to do,” Mr Hansson told the AFP news agency.
“We have decided we will not have quotas for gender or ethnicity,” he said, adding that the decision was “in line with the spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will”.
“In the end, we will give the prize to those who are found the most worthy, those who have made the most important contributions,” he said.
I think that’s a fair decision. If they had decided to fulfill quotas, that would mean giving prizes not to those who make the most important contributions, but to help even out a disparity in sexes and races. So, for example, the 2020 Medicine and Physiology prize shared by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna was an excellent choice (and one that cut out male competitors), for their work was highly important by anyone’s standards. Nobody can say that these women were chosen to achieve gender parity!
We’ll focus on gender, as we have more data on that, and this is the focus of the BBC article and most complaints about disparity in Nobels. It’s true that women haven’t received half of the Nobel Prizes over time, and this can be explained by all three factors above, but largely because, due to bias or oppression in the past, there simply weren’t that many women in science (or in literature). I think most of us recognize that this gender bias is disappearing rapidly; indeed, universities throughout the West are trying very hard to recruit women professor and students. But there’s still a disparity in STEM participation. This may or may not change much in the future (though it’s certainly changed during my lifetime!), but whether we’ll ever achieve gender parity in academic representation—or Nobel Prizes—is something I don’t know. All we can do, and must do, is offer everyone equal opportunity to enter the scientific pipeline, and avoid gender or racial discrimination within the pipe.
More from the BBC and Hansson:
And while more women are being recognised now compared to previous decades, Mr Hansson said, that number was increasing “from a very low level”.
“Keep in mind that only about 10% of the professors in natural sciences in western Europe or North America are women, and even lower if you go to East Asia,” he said.
However, the scientist said they would “make sure that we have an increasing portion of women scientists being invited to nominate, and we will continue to make sure we have women on our committees – but we need help, and society needs to help here”.
“We need different attitudes to women going into sciences… so that they get a chance to make these discoveries that are being awarded,” he added.
Again, the last statement implies structural bias against women, but where are the data that there are “different attitudes to women”? There is no consistent data showing discrimination against women in STEM hiring or grant-getting; in fact, one can cite research showing both sides. In the absence of consistent evidence, all we can do is avoid personal bias and offer equal opportunities. Note that Hansson also mentions the severe dearth of women in the natural sciences in Asia, Europe, and North America.
When Charpentier got her Prize, she hoped the award would encourage women to go into STEM, but she also noted a comparative lack of interest of women in going into STEM.
From the BBC again:
Last year, scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna became the first two women to share the honour when they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the tools to edit DNA.
It was the first time any of the science prizes had been awarded to two women without a male collaborator also listed on the award.
At the time, Prof Charpentier said: “I wish that this will provide a positive message specifically for young girls who would like to follow the path of science… and to show them that women in science can also have an impact with the research they are performing.”
She added that there was “a clear lack of interest in following a scientific path, which is very worrying”.
I’ve given my position many times on this site. I favor some forms of affirmative action in academia for minorities, including women (they’re actually more numerous than men), though settling on how to structure that affirmative action is tricky. The affirmative action I have in mind involves accepting students in colleges and universities, and in hiring faculty. But these preferences should, I think, stop once someone is hired, and they should certainly not apply to awards and prizes. Thus I think the Nobel Committee’s statement is appropriate, though I’m not sure why they made it. Could it be that public pressure was bearing down on the Academy?
Again, all one can do in the face of the latter is to be sure that everyone is made aware of the excitement of science and then to avoid bias. As the following article states, we need to ensure equal opportunity, not equal outcome, for equal outcomes assumes that all groups have identical preferences or interests.
I love this photo of Doudna and Charpentier. I think this is in Stockholm when they got their prizes, but I can’t be sure. It does show some joint award, though, and the affection between the two women, who weren’t really collaborators but independent researchers.
There are those who think that there should be no affirmative action in any aspect of science—that hiring, promotion, funding, and awards in STEM be solely on the basis of merit. One of these is Lawrence Krauss, who wrote the following piece in a recent Quillette (click on screenshot to read):
Now Lawrence is talking about disparities between men and women in funding by NSERC in Canada and other countries, not in hiring or awards, but the principle he sets forth is one I agree with:
The standard of “fair access” that NSERC planners set out here implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between mandating equality of opportunity—which is desirable—and mandating equality of outcome. The latter would lead to overt identity-based discrimination against members of groups whose applications, in some cases, would otherwise be successful under a purely merit-based approach. That a major research-funding agency is promoting such a misunderstanding in regard to policy formulation is an issue of some concern.
Where I differ from Krauss is that I favor equality of opportunity above the college-admissions or academic-hiring level, but also some tweaking of outcomes (a bit of equity) to bump up minorities at both levels. Once people are hired, again, the affirmative action should stop. (It goes without saying that I don’t think grossly unqualified people should be admitted to college or hired for professor jobs, as that does nobody any favors.)
Krauss notes that the funding disparity between men and women in Canada (and Australia) is immediately imputed to systemic sexist bias at the present time, but gives data showing that the difference is explained completely by different career stages of grant applicants. At early stages, funding is roughly equal between men and women, but at senior stages men get more funding. But that’s solely because there are simply more men at senior stages of their careers. Here are the data of grants given in Australia and what Krauss says about them:
A bar chart included in a previous Nature article on this subject shows the total value of grants awarded to men and women in 2019, categorized by seniority quintile. In the first (most junior) quintile, women actually were awarded more grant money than men got. In the second quintile, men had a slight edge. This edge grew substantially in the third and fourth quintiles, leading up to a massive difference in the fifth (i.e., most senior) quintile, which shows the most senior male scientists being awarded $81 million, compared to just $21 million for the most senior female scientists. This means that, of the money going to senior scientists, women got just over 20 percent.
The caption: “Male (red) vs. Female (green) Investigator Grant recipients in 2019, by applicant seniority.”
The latest Nature article concludes with a quote from Teresa Woodruff, an obstetrician and advocate for women in science at Northwestern University. She describes the data as a wake-up call to funders, who now should “address the issues.” But the Nature analysis glides over one of the more obvious issues lying in plain sight: As the 2019 article showed, there tends to be fewer senior women (just 17 in 2019) applying for grants, as compared to senior men (75). In 2021, the numbers were similar: According to Nature, “at the most senior level … there were about four times more male than female applicants”—an 80/20 male-female applicant split that corresponds almost exactly to the $81 million/$21 million split in awarded 2021 grants.
This pattern has an obvious explanation: There are simply more men than women in the senior ranks of Australia’s health and medical researchers—a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone, since most scientific fields were, until just a few decades ago, almost entirely dominated by men. Thankfully, this era is over, and Australia’s medical schools achieved gender parity in admissions a long time ago. Thus, one might expect that the funding of male and female medical researchers at the junior level would be roughly even, while being progressively more skewed toward men among older generations—which is exactly what the data reported by Nature shows to be the case.
While this is the kind of data regularly adduced to show structural sexism in STEM, the explanation is not nearly as insidious.
Finally, Krauss makes a more general statement that goes beyond funding:
We have gone down this road before, when strict quotas were placed on Jewish scientists within my own academic sphere, physics, as a means of excluding Jews (including very nearly, future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman) from US graduate schools. Today, we properly regard such policies as shameful, both for discriminating against individual human beings and for misdirecting society’s scientific resources. Medical science is a life-and-death endeavor, and decisions about how that science should be funded must be based on the quality of research proposals, not the skin color or sex of those submitting them.
The comparison with Jews isn’t really apposite, however, as Jews were discriminated against: the quotas were the maximum number of Jews allowed to be admitted. The minority group, in other words, was discriminated against. What Krauss is attacking here are quotas against the majority group that favor minority groups. (I suppose you could see this as a “male quota”).
And I still favor preferential admission and hiring of minorities (but not grossly preferential, is as happening in California) as a form of reparations for past discrimination and, as Charpentier noted, to provide some role models. Again, we should accept only qualified applicants, and any deficit in training can be addressed with mentoring or tutoring.
All applicants for jobs or admissions, however, should exceed some bar decided as “qualified for the slot”. What that means is above my pay grade, but surely far more qualified people apply to America’s best colleges than get into them.
I know the arguments against affirmative action, but I won’t try to counter them now.