Prizes Are Great But Female Representation in Science Is Far From Equal

The Swedish Noble committee awarded The 2018 Noble Prize in Physics to a trio of scientists, including Canadian physicist Donna Strickland, for their research and discoveries about the science of lasers. With this award, Strickland became the third female laureate in Nobel Prize history. The prize had not been awarded to a woman since 1963 when Maria Goeppert-Mayer won for her work on atomic structure. The only other woman is Marie Curie who was the first to win in 1903. When she won, Strickland commented on the recognition of female scientists and their achievements telling the Canadian Press “we should never lose the fact that we are moving forward” and stressed the “need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there.”

The Nobel Committee has long been criticised for neglecting to honour women despite many women being behind some ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs. For example, Jocelyn Bell discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. However, The Nobel Prize was won by her male supervisor. This was also the case with Vera Rubin who died in 2016 without any recognition from the committee for her contribution to the field of astronomy and her discovery of dark matter in the 1980s. Chien-Shiung Wu’s male colleagues picked up the 1957 Nobel Prize for their theoretical work behind a study that disproved a fundamental particle physics law. Her experimental work was instrumental but never honoured. This is why Donna Strickland’s win is so significant for women in science.

Despite Strickland’s victory demonstrating the potential of women within the field, her success does not necessarily reflect changing attitudes towards women in science. Her win came just days after misogynistic comments were made at a physics conference at CERN. In his talk, Professor Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa claimed that “physics was invented and built by men”. Clearly, Strumia is not familiar with the historical works of Rosalind Franklin or Sophie Germain or the more recent scientific advancements of Harvard University’s Lena Hau. Though he faced widespread condemnation, Strumia is not isolated in his views. In 2015, Tim Hun of University College London insisted that the trouble with allowing “girls” into laboratories was that “when you criticise them, they cry”. Such views play directly into the stereotypical difference between men and woman, that men are “rational” beings and that women are “emotional”. It also perpetuates the absurd notion that a branch of knowledge can be gendered; science is a ‘masculine’ subject and women are more suited to ‘feminine’ subjects like English Literature.

When faced with a challenge of dissolving such deep-rooted ancient biases against women in science and technology, can we truly say that we are “moving forward” as Strickland puts it? Could such perceptions of women in science be why the percentage of female graduates in STEM subjects at Universities dropped to 24% in 2017 or why the number of girls choosing to study such subjects at A-Level remains static?

Surely the odd sexist comment by these “alpha-males” of physics doesn’t matter, right? Well, it’s clear they do matter. Male dominance in the workplace and these very beliefs are preventing women from getting the recognition they deserve. I mean it took another 55 years for a female to finally be honoured with the award. Strickland is the only living female recipient. These very problematic ideas are why women continue to face sexist stereotyping and lower wages within the workplace and are reflective of statistics that show that women are less likely to enter and more likely to leave STEM careers. Strickland did not even have a Wikipedia page until she had been awarded, an indication of her work was not deemed significant enough to merit her own page. This belated recognition contrasted with Gérard Mourou with whom she shared the prestigious award who has been present on the site since 2005.

Whilst Strickland’s win is definitely one to be celebrated, it has opened up a discussion surrounding women in science and the systemic gender bias in STEM subjects. Though the government has pushed for more girls to study these subjects and individual institutions have involved themselves in campaigning, more can be done to tackle sexism in schools and workplaces in order for women to prosper and be seen without intimidation from men.

Nayaab Farooq