Women in science: time for a representational revolution.

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Vanshika Dhyani discusses female Nobel prize winners and the importance of the increase in representation of female scientists.

Traditionally, gender roles have played a conspicuous part in governing societal norms. They have defined women’s position in academia by placing them in a vicious cycle of exclusion and bias. Gender discrimination not only cripples the extension of science in our society but also gives way to systemic bias in STEM careers. Furthermore, male-dominated work environments impede female collaboration, resulting in smaller advisory circles for women to support and uplift each other. In 2018, UNESCO prepared a fact sheet reporting that women make up for just 28.8% of the world’s researchers in the scientific community. This ratio confirms a significant gender divide in the field and also highlights the urgent need to bridge the gap. Underrepresentation of women in science discourages young girls from taking their first steps in its direction, and in turn, contributes to the diminishing standards of research and to a lack of competition.

Although women are still not at par with men in the field, institutions and organisations have become more conscious of the gender gap. More and more corporations are campaigning for gender equality, with a central focus on empowering women and constructing an inclusive workforce. The last decade has seen an impressive expansion in society's view of women as scientists. The Nobel Prize is often regarded as the most prestigious award achievable and has been around for 120 years. The assemblage of five awards—in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace, as well as a subsequent sixth prize in the field of Economic Sciences (introduced in 1968)—has been awarded to 930 individuals and 25 organizations, out of which only  57 have been women. 

Since its conception in 1901, the Nobel Prize has been criticized for overlooking the achievements of female scientists, with only 22 women laureates in Science categories. The award which honours "those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” has been awarded to women in physics, chemistry, and physiology, 4 out of 216, 7 out of 186, and 12 out of 222 times respectively. In the first decade, the award recognised the achievement of only one female scientist, Marie Curie, for her “study into spontaneous radiation”. Still and all, the number of female laureates have been on a rise in the 21st century. The first decade of the century saw a female representation of 9.2%, the next saw 11.1%. The year 2009 broke the record for the most Nobel Prizes awarded to women in a single year with five laureates across four categories. 

The year 2020 saw the first time a Nobel Science Prize was awarded to more than one woman but no men when Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Chemistry Prize "for the development of a method for genome editing." Furthermore, 2020 became only the second time when the Science Prizes were awarded to more than one woman. Andrea Ghez became the fourth woman to win a Nobel in Physics which she shared with three others "for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy." So far, only 3 women have won the complete share of the Science Nobel Prize.

The first steps towards a better tomorrow are understanding, accepting, and creating awareness. In order to make the workforce more equitable for women, it is important to acknowledge gender bias which starts at an early stage of a child’s life, and then work towards building an inclusive environment. Parents and teachers have to adopt new techniques to boost class participation, to help young and impressionable women build confidence in their abilities. Spreading awareness about the topic, devising new ways of overcoming gender biases will help dispel stereotypes and discard partisanship. Representation is crucial to the scientific community. It is a well-known fact that diversity encourages new and innovative ways of problem-solving. In a world governed by innovation and creativity, diversity becomes a key player in economic development. 

A revolution in the way our society perceives STEM careers is essential to inspire the next wave of female scientists. This cannot be achieved without the collective effort of our society. Participation in these academic disciplines has to be nurtured by parents, teachers, professors, and employers alike. It is our social responsibility to ensure that attainment of equality - and that a fundamental human right is no longer violated.