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The “female” Nobel Prize: a step to bridge the gender gap?

Culture and society

The “female” Nobel Prize: a step to bridge the gender gap?

5 Nov, 2020

“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”.

This is the message to women by Emmanuelle Charpentier, the researcher who shared equally with Jennifer A. Doudna one of the most coveted prizes: the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020, for the discovery and development of CRISPR/Cas9.

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From left: Jennifer A. Doudna (University of California, Berkeley, USA) and Emmanuelle Charpentier(Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany), winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 “for the development of a method for genome editing”. Photo credit: ©EPA/Alexander Heinl

The fact that the Nobel has been awarded to two women is unfortunately a rarity: since 1901 only 58 women have received the award compared to 876 men, about 7% of the total. Beyond the Nobel Prize, gender disparity is an increasingly topical issue that affects many sectors and spares virtually no nation.

Gender gap

By gender gap we mean the gap between men and women in many areas; according to the latest Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, women everywhere in the world are still discriminated against in terms of economic remuneration, job opportunities, access to education and care.

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In the academic field, the so-called “Matilda Effect”, named after the American activist and writer Matilda Joslyn Gage, is exemplary. Analyzing numerous articles published in scientific journals, Margaret W. Rossiter observed that the work done by female scientists had fewer citations than similar work done by male colleagues. The genre of the author would therefore have influenced the diffusion of the research work. This aspect is very important if we consider that, for example, the number of citations of one’s work is crucial in the competitions to access and progress in university roles.

The San Raffaele University Interfaculty centre for gender studies

In 2016, theInterfaculty centre for gender studies was inaugurated at our University, a center with the aim of promoting, developing and coordinating studies and gender research carried out within our University. Among the aims of the Center, researchers also investigate the phenomenon of the gender gap and study to understand what it possibly implies and propose ways to avoid this bias.

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There are several penalized researchers compared to their male colleagues who were awarded the Nobel Prize. Physics Mileva Marić (1875-1948) was the wife of the famous Albert Einstein for 16 years. Despite her remarkable and fervent contribution to her husband’s work, her name did not appear in the literature; the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded only to Albert “for his services in Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. Photo credit: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

 

Is Doudna and Charpentier’s Nobel prize a step towards gender equality? What actions can be taken to bridge this gap?

We talked about it with Prof. Sonia Levi, Full Professor in Applied Biology and member of the Board of Directors of the Center and with Prof. Valentina Di Mattei, Associate in Clinical Psychology and member of the Management Committee of the Center; they both answered the following questions, each according to their own personal and professional sensitivity and experience. A calm and reasoned reflection in the light of the themes that the Center explores.

 

What does this victory represent in terms of gender equality?

Sonia Levi: It is certainly positive news but it does not change what today’s reality is, the gap is deep and it will take much more than a Nobel prize won by two women to fill it.

Let’s say that this time there were no conditioning and the award went to those who deserved it, we hope that this is the logic that will continue to prevail in the future.

 

The San Raffaele University's Gender Center aims to promote, develop and coordinate gender studies and research conducted within the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University. Find out more about the Center

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Valentina Di Mattei: This recognition offers the opportunity to address a subject that is as well known as it is undervalued. Only in recent years there has been an awareness of this but often the risk is run of being confined to an abstract debate that everyone virtually agrees on.

The difficulty can arise when trying to concretely translate intentions into equal opportunities, to challenge established habits and attitudes even in the places that should be the “forerunner”: cultural and scientific institutions, hospitals, boards of directors. In everyday life, words are not always followed by facts with adequate consistency.

For this we still need “heroines”: women who become a symbol and emblem of a process that will stop only when there is no need for them.

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While still a student of astronomy at Cambridge University, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell (1943) discovered the first pulsar, a new class of stars that transmitted signals that pulsed regularly. The 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to her thesis’ supervisor, Professor Anthony Hewish; Bell was not mentioned at the awards ceremony. Photo credit: Daily Herald Archive|SSPL|Getty Images

 

It seems paradoxical but the need for female astronauts, Olympic champion mothers, primary hospital wards, faculty deans and, in fact, top scientists, is growing more and more.

So this Nobel Prize comes back to talk to us about a challenge that is still particularly difficult to “win” as women and it is good to take every useful opportunity to open a constructive reflection on the matter. Gender equality is distant both at the upper levels of the social fabric, which statistically concern the “few”, but also in the other, even less visible, layers. A Nobel Prize to a woman can therefore have positive effects for all.

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In the history of the Nobel Prizes, only 7% of the winners are women. How to read this number?

S.L.: In my opinion there are several factors that affect this data:

  1. discrimination against women by decision makers. There are several examples of discrimination in the past regarding the Nobel Prize awarded (eg Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell...);
  2. limited career opportunities for women;
  3. limited sources of funding for women;
  4. the less interest women have in showing off or excelling.

The reasons are various, not everything depends only on men: it will take a lot of work to change these negative factors.

Nobel_female_step_bridge_gender_gap_San_Raffaele_University (6)Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) made an essential contribution to molecular biology: thanks to her photographs, “among the most beautiful X-ray images ever obtained of a substance”, she provided experimental evidence of the structure of DNA. For the discovery of the double helix model, in 1962 the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. As Watson himself jokingly recounts in his autobiography The Double Helix, the three had stolen the X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA from Franklin’s lab. The researcher died at 38 of ovarian cancer, before her work could receive proper recognition. Photo credit: Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images

 

V.D.M.: Historically, since the first assignment, only 58 women have received the Nobel and among these only 24 in scientific disciplines. Men were awarded nearly 21 times more.

Among the factors contributing to this gender discrepancy in the awarding of Nobel prizes we find a lower percentage of women working in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas, an aspect that can in turn be associated with some elements highlighted in the analysis of the phenomenon: lack of female role models, gender stereotypes and less family flexibility in favor of women.

Sven Lidin, president of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, in 2016 expressed himself in this regard by commenting on this number as “inappropriately low” but logical from his point of view if we consider that to verify and recognize the real effects of a phenomenon it is necessary to time.

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Wu Jianxiong (1912-1997) was one of the scientists who participated in the Manhattan Project, a military research and development program that led to the creation of the first atomic bombs during the Second World War. Wu carried out a sophisticated experiment – named after her – thrpugh which she demonstrated that the “principle of equality”, hitherto considered inviolable, is not always valid in the subatomic field. For this discovery, the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics went to her colleagues Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, while Wu’s work was not recognized. Photo credit: NewScientist

 

According to this analysis, we would now see the outcome of changes that began two or more decades ago. If we consider the last ten years, in fact, the number of women awarded is definitely increasing, arriving precisely at the exceptional assignment for chemistry in 2020 to two women: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. The trend observable in recent years therefore seems only an anticipation of a trend towards gender equality, with the reasonable hope that it will become more and more established.

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Esther Zimmer Lederberg (1922-2006), American microbiologist, discovered a virus that infects bacteria and, together with her husband Joshua, developed a technique to transfer bacteria from one petri dish to another. His findings contributed to the successes of his research group; the 1958 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to her husband and her male colleagues, while the researcher was not credited for the discovery and was invited exclusively as the “wife” of one of the members of the group she was part of. Photo credit: Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website

 

Not only Nobel Prize: in many other awards the winners are mainly men. What actions can be taken to bridge such gender gap?

S.L.: It is necessary to act on the conditioning that society imposes and try to change the cultural setting that still exists for which a woman must take care of the children and not the work. This cultural change must be implemented in schools of all levels, so that it is acquired as children and can then mature in adults, without it being experienced by women as a fault. Something is slowly changing, it is true, but it will take a long time to reach this goal.

For this reason it is essential to try to encourage young female students above all to study science in all its fields, in order to dispel the preconception that “it is not for them” and that “they cannot make it”, as I have often heard from many young women.

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V.D.M.: It is important to work first of all on a preventive, educational and awareness-raising level to reduce gender stereotypes. Stereotypes or cognitive biases are independent of direct experience, but are constructed by attributing characteristics to an individual or a group.

Each stereotype is easily transmitted and easily learned, for this reason it is important to convey the right messages so that society can promote mutual respect, inclusion and the enhancement of diversity.

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It is therefore essential to act through communication and awareness, even in the school and family environment, so as to be able to operate in environments in which norms and values ​​are assimilated and internalized, to promote the culture of gender equality from childhood in order to stem and in the future eradicate stereotypes and prejudices.

To do this, there are gender education courses in schools but also university courses such as those that our Gender Center offers within the University. From a work point of view, on the other hand, it is necessary to operate in terms of protected and reserved paths for access, integration and the assumption of managerial roles for women, especially in the scientific world.

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