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Nobel breaks the glass ceiling

The three 2018 Nobel Prizes for women should serve as a reminder that it is not just a lack of women at the top that keeps them off the recognition charts, but the inability of society to see their achievements for what they are.

After three years, the list of Nobel Prize winners for 2018 includes women again. (AP File Photo)

After three years, the list of Nobel Prize winners for 2018 includes women again. This year is also particularly exceptional because of the three women who won the Prize, one — Donna Strickland — became only the third woman ever to win it for Physics (the other two are Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963); and another — Frances Arnold — became only the fifth woman ever to win for Chemistry (afte r Marie Curie in 1911, Irène Joliot-Curie in 1935, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1964, and Ada E Yonath in 2009). The third woman winner this year is Nadia Murad, the 17th woman to win for Peace. As of 2018, in the 117 years of its history, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 853 men and only 51 women.

Within this abysmal record of women at the top of their fields, the records in the sciences are particularly telling. While there have been 17 and 14 women who have won for Peace and Literature respectively, there have been three, five, and 12 in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine. This is as much a reflection of the inability of STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields to retain women till they reach the top, as of the absence of recognition for high achieving women in these fields. Ms Strickland, for instance, won this year for work that appeared in her first published scientific paper in 1985. But in spite of her very influential work, she did not have a Wikipedia page until after the Nobel announcement. Twitter user Nick England pointed out?Ms Strickland had a page before, but it was rejected by moderators in May 2018, with the explanation, “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” This speaks of the reluctance of acknowledging even those women with significant contributions in their fields.

A Pew Research Centre report published in January shows how much more hostile a STEM workplace can be for women in comparison to men. About 50% of women in STEM jobs in the US said they had experienced discrimination. One in five women (both in and outside STEM fields) had been sexually harassed at the workplace. Adding complications of race and class to this mix only heightens the intersectionality of discrimination and marginalisation. The three 2018 Nobel Prizes for women should serve as a reminder that it is not just a lack of women at the top that keeps them off the recognition charts, but the inability of society to see their achievements for what they are.

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