This is the Nobel season – come the first week of October, there would be those who know they are on the nominated list, who will be anxiously keeping an ear open for the famous ring!!! There are the prizes for Peace, Literature and Economics, all of which have had some element of political fine balancing, and the choices have often led to much public debate. However, the Science prizes – Medicine or Physiology, Physics, Chemistry – have evoked less controversy and without question, these are the highest recognition of scientific excellence.
The average age of the Science Nobel recipients, being awarded since 1901, is in the 50s,(55 for Physics and 58 for Chemistry and Medicine) and women have generally done poorly (11/105 in Medicine, 4 in /106 in Chemistry and 2/108 in Physics) for many obvious reasons. In the first half of the century , women featured only 4 times in the list – twice Marie Curie (1903 and 1911), her daughter in 1935 and the prize in Medicine in 1947 to Gerty Con. In the second half of the 20th century, 7 women made it to the list, one each in Physics and Chemistry and 4 in Physiology and Medicine. In the 14 awards of this century women have featured once in Chemistry and 6 times in Physiology and Medicine (2 in 2009), the latest being the one to May-Britt Moser this year. And the Fields Medal, the Nobel equivalent in Mathematics which was established in 1935 was won by a woman for the first time this year.
So is it that the other half is dumb or does not like science? It is clear that over a 100 years, the gender gap in science is not closing, even marginally. Of course, the Nobel is not the only parameter for testing the waters, and there are statistics out there on how few women head Science Departments in Universities, occupy prestigious chairs, etc… In the pre-war and early post-war years, women had not stepped out into the public space and their numbers accessing higher education was still low. But in the years since then, that has changed and in 2010 in the US more women received doctorates than men. But this is not true for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) subjects, where there is an inherent bias in women themselves due to gender conditioning, and against women by the male establishment.
The scenario in India is not different and in fact, worse from many aspects. The positive is that there are discussions out there, recognition that there is an issue and some efforts (no where near enough though) towards mitigation. The Department of Science and Technology, Government of India introduced a ‘Women Scientist’ scheme more than a decade ago, to encourage women in science and their re-entry after a lay off. I was a member of this Committee for a few years, and the reasons why women had to leave their jobs were far beyond the ‘child-bearing’ one – husband’s transfer, illness in the family (husband, mother-in-law, father-in-law), opposition from in-laws following marriage etc…. At the time, it was amongst the first such initiative globally. Also, in our structured, non-negotiable pay structure both sexes get the same pay, unlike in the US where because pays are negotiated, women get 70-80% of male pay. Even now, although there are many supportive male colleagues, I do hear occasional mutterings of the ‘unfair’ advantages women get!!!
I am thinking that it will be a long haul to see women and men have an equal playing field in science, as in so many other fields. And I seriously doubt whether in my life time, seeing a woman on the annual Nobel list will not be a novelty!!!