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Nobel Prize

Female power

Record number of women laureates illustrates the rising presence of women at the top in science

Indiana UniversityElinor OstromIndiana University

The Nobel Prize Committee discovered women in 2009. Four researchers won in scientific categories of the prize, the highlight being the pioneering triumph of political scientist Elinor Ostrom, from Indiana University, winning the Economics Prize, until then only awarded to men. Israeli Ada Yonath was only the third woman to win the Chemistry Prize since Marie Curie headed the female list of laureates in this particular category in 1911. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider were the first women to share a Medicine or Physiology Prize. With the Literature category going to the Romanian Herta Müller, the number of women Nobel laureates grew from 36 to 41 in 2009, a 14% increase overall. This contingent is still light-years behind the 761 male laureates since the award was instituted back in 1901 and adding in the total number of prizewinners in 2009 still leaves women in a minority (eight men won). However, the movement has been strong enough to reopen the debate on the recognition of women’s contribution to science.

Elinor Ostrom, 76 years old, remembered the discredit she faced in the 1960’s, when she decided to pursue an academic career. “It was impossible for a woman to become a PhD in 1965. The advice I received when I enrolled in a graduate course was: ‘Well, you’ve got a job. Why are you going to try to do a doctorate? You can get a job anywhere instead of teaching. You’ve got a very good job’,” said Elinor, who studies how groups of people manage to exploit natural resources sustainably, even without regulation. She recalled that at the time she was very enthusiastic and decided to carry on because of her genuine academic interest, rather than just getting a job. “Fortunately, Indiana University hired me to give lessons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. We don’t do that anymore, do we? We’ve entered a new era; we recognize that women have the skill to do good scientific work. It’s an honor to be the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. I won’t be the last,” she added.

Molecular biologist Carol Greider, 48, from Johns Hopkins University, was the center of a scene that is rare in the announcement of a Nobel Prize. Joint winner with Elizabeth Blackburn for research related to telomeres, the structures that maintain the structural stability of chromosomes, Carol gave the traditional collective interview, accompanied by her two children, a boy of 13 and a girl of 9 – an image that embodies the possibility of being a mother and a top scientist at the same time. Later, she would say that she was washing clothes at home when she was told she had won the prize. “I don’t normally do the washing early in the morning, but I was already awake and there were all those clothes just waiting for me,” she said. The daughter of researchers, she explained why the study of telomeres brought together so many female scientists. “There’s nothing in this subject to attract women. However, there’s the so-called founder effect,” she said, referring to the opportunities that Joseph Gall, a pioneer in the theme, gave to women researchers in his laboratory. “These women went to work in other places in the country and trained other women. I think that women are slightly more inclined to work with women because there’s a cultural tendency for men to help other men. It’s not that they have anything against women; it’s simply that they don’t think about them. They frequently feel more comfortable promoting their male colleagues.”

Elizabeth Blackburn, 61, an Australian who settled in the United States, recalled the difficulties she faced in 1985, when, at the age of 37, she was made a professor at the University of California, in Berkeley, and became pregnant. “I hadn’t reckoned on it being so hard to have a child and do my research,” she said. “My conclusion today is that there are some periods in life when we can’t be 100% dedicated to our work and it’s not necessary to abandon your career just because you’re momentarily unable to dedicate yourself to it. It’s possible to have 20 or 30 years of productivity over a period of several decades of professional activity,” she stated. Israeli Ada Yonath, 60, won the prize for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome, and was the only one to put aside the gender question when she celebrated her triumph. “I don’t go to the lab in the morning thinking: ‘I’m a woman and I’m going to do research that’s going to conquer the world’. Above all, I’m a scientist, regardless of my gender. Just a scientist,” she said.

For some time now the Swedish Royal Academy, which awards the Physics, Chemistry and Economics prizes, has been criticized because of the dominance of males among its laureates. “This attracts attention in the times in which we live and because of the importance we give to gender equality here in Sweden,” said Gunnar Oquist, secretary general of the academy in an interview he gave in 2005. “It just so happens that it takes time. The work we’re rewarding today goes back 20 years,” he stated.

Institute of ScienceAda YonathInstitute of Science

Parental relationship
Historically, scientific activity is male-dominated. The widespread participation of women in science is a recent phenomenon that started in the second half of the last century, driven by factors such as the struggle for equal rights between the genders and the need for human resources for strategic activities. Previously, women’s access to a scientific career was sporadic and often linked to some family relationship with men of science. It is no coincidence that the first woman to win a Nobel prize, a French woman of Polish origin, Marie Curie, won the Physics Prize in a partnership with her husband, Pierre, in 1903 – although she also single-handedly won the Chemistry Prize in 1911. The couple’s daughter, Irene Curie, also shared the Chemistry Prize with her husband, Jean Frederic Joliot, in 1935.

The integration of women and a scientific career has advanced over the last few decades, although unevenly. It has been concentrated in certain areas, such as the biological and social sciences, to the detriment of the so-called hard sciences, such as physics, and the technology areas, such as engineering and computing. One of the first studies to go into this phenomenon in any depth was published in 1965 by Alice Rossi, an American from the University of Chicago, who discussed the reasons why in the United States women accounted for only 1% of the employees in engineering, while they reached 27% in biology. The author discussed social and psychological aspects linked to the phenomenon, such as the priority given to marriage and motherhood relative to career, the cultural determination of attitudes held to be “feminine” or “masculine,” and the behavioral differences between men and women, such as persistence and isolation from social coexistence.

Though this inequality has diminished since the 1960’s, issues connected with professional performance or career commitment persist and are seen as inferior to those of men, being the result of dedication to the family. The side effects of this include limited access to senior academic positions and relatively lower pay. Three years ago, the discussion about the root causes of this phenomenon created a major ruckus at Harvard, one of the most important universities on the planet. The then dean of the university, Lawrence Summers, lost political support and was obliged to resign from his post as head of the institution after suggesting that the small participation of women in science and in mathematics is explained by a natural female inaptitude for such fields. In addition to dismissing Summers, the Harvard Corporation, which controls the institution, created two task forces, one on Women Professors and the other on Women in Science and Engineering, to “develop proposals to reduce the barrier for the advancement of women at Harvard” – and it chose a woman to replace Summers, historian Drew Gilpin Faust.

Carol Greider, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ada Yonath and Elinor Ostrom are women who have distinguished themselves in the fields of science in which Summers suggested they were unable to compete with men on an equal footing. “Summers asked where the women scientists were. In the case of the female winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize they were busy doing top level research,” said Sharon McGrayne, author of a book about women Nobel laureates.

If there is scientific literature suggesting biological reasons for the different behavior of men and women, in the field of science the evidence points to social and cultural origins for the differences in performance and interest. Stereotypes, like that of male aptitude for the sciences, influence women at the time they are choosing a profession and make them shy away from certain areas.

Research conducted in 2009, which compared the situation in 34 countries, concluded that in nations in which the stereotypes are more deep-rooted, boys achieve better results than girls in sciences and mathematics. “Stereotypes and the gulf between the sexes concerning their capacity for succeeding in science mutually reinforce each other,” said Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology from the University of Virginia, author of the study, published in the journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences. “When people see that men work more in scientific fields, prejudice arises, according to which men are better suited to the sciences,” he says.

In the case of computer science, which has seen female participation drop over the last few years, the hypotheses range from an increase in competition in the academic and professional environments to the stereotype that this is a profession that favors isolation.

Other recent research sought to map out the reasons why men file more patents than women in the United States. The research, published in the journal Science was carried out with a sample of 4,227 North Americans who received their PhDs between 1967 and 1995. The data show that 5.65% of the 903 women analyzed had some patent registered in their name. Among the 3,324 men, the rate was 13%. The authors interviewed specific groups to try to understand this imbalance. Their conclusion: the gender gap persists due to the weak links women have with the private sector and because of their traditional view of an academic career. They do not just concern themselves less with taking out patents, but they also dedicate themselves little to activities linked to “academic entrepreneurship,” such as providing consultancy services to companies. However, this is not an innate characteristic. According to the authors, younger female researchers are already showing signs of the male culture in expanding their links with companies.


The question appears in different ways in different cultures. The strictness of the academic environment in Japan stands in the way of female participation. In 2004, women comprised just 11.1% of the academic workforce in the country, the lowest share of any of the 30 member countries of the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OCDE) – Portugal has the highest rate, at 40%. In Europe, despite policies that seek to provide women scientists with opportunities and flexibility, results are disappointing. “Studies done in France and Germany show that over the last twenty years women have had greater access to a scientific career, but they are still in a minority in the more prestigious positions,” says Jacqueline Leta, a professor from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), who is studying issues of gender in science.

In Brazil, the situation is less dramatic. A census of the country’s research groups, published in August by CNPq, shows that of the researchers registered in 2008, 49% were women and 51% men. When group leaders are analyzed, female participation drops to 45%. Despite this, the numbers indicate progress in women’s presence in laboratories. In 1993, of every 100 researchers, only 39 were women.

In the opinion of science sociologist Léa Velho, a professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil’s progress in the issue of gender in science, which translates into greater female participation in public universities than in advanced countries, has two main causes. “On the one hand we have a social structure in which middle class women can count on every type of help with household chores and with looking after their children. It’s women from the lower classes that make the careers of those in the middle class feasible. On the other hand, access to a career via public admission exams tends to reduce judgment biases,” she says.

Jacqueline Leta raises the hypothesis that women are entering universities and predominating in certain careers because they are not being pressured to start work early. “For many men it’s not feasible to spend four years doing an undergraduate course without working. This business of opting for the market may increasingly make room in universities for women,” she says. According to her, this does not mean that women are gaining the best positions. A recent study, of which she was the author, analyzed the situation of 1,946 teachers from UFRJ. She saw that except for the arts and humanities areas, the percentage of women involved with post-graduate activities is always smaller than the female fraction of all teachers. This suggests a tendency towards a division of labor, in which research activities, which carry more prestige and recognition in academia, are more the responsibility of men, while women tend to work in teaching.