September 29, 2005

Nobel Science Prizes Remain a Male Preserve

STOCKHOLM -- If you are a woman scientist, don't hold your breath for a call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the venerable body that awards the Nobel prizes.

If history is a guide, a couple of greying men are likely to win the 2005 Nobel physics and chemistry prizes, to be announced on October 4 and October 5 respectively. They will receive the 10 million crown prize in December.

Swedish kings have handed out 320 prizes to distinguished physicists and chemists since 1901, but only five times have women been on the receiving end. Even then, one family -- the Curies -- has dominated, winning three of the five.

A pioneer in the study of radioactivity, Marie Curie was awarded the 1903 prize in physics, the first Nobel for a woman, together with her husband, Pierre. She went on to win the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on her own.

In 1935, their daughter Irene dusted off a new place on the family mantelpiece for a Nobel chemistry prize together with her husband, Frederic Joliot.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the 1963 physics prize with Eugene Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen, and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin single-handedly took the 1964 chemistry award for her work on the structures of biochemical substances.

Since then, male domination has been absolute.

"This is very remarkable in the times we live in and with the importance we give to gender equality here," said Gunnar Oquist, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy.

"And it simply takes time. The work we reward today usually dates back 20 or so years. Probably things will look different in 25 years," he told Reuters.


Part of the reason for the lack of female laureates is that women remain scarce in the top echelons of the scientific community which makes nominations for the prizes, Oquist said.

"It is a male culture and they don't think of nominating a woman," said Elizabeth Ivey, head of the Association for Women in Science, a U.S. group dedicated to promoting participation for women in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

"That is true for all the major awards, not just the Nobels," she told Reuters from Connecticut.

Ivey, herself a physicist, said many of common obstacles encountered by women in their careers, such as employers being hesitant to hire them for fear they will leave to have children, were equally true in the field of scientific research.

"I have faced that," she said. "And parents just don't encourage their daughters to go into something which they perceive will provide so much discrimination."

A woman winning the top honours in physics or chemistry for the first time in more than 40 years could help change that.

"It's always a plus," Ivey said. "People look to them as role models."