Why don’t women win Nobel science prizes?

The men behind the first observations of gravitational waves deserve their prize. But you have to go back half a century to find a female physics laureate.

More than 1bn years ago, a pair of massive black holes violently merged, sending ripples across the fabric of spacetime. Humans didn’t exist yet when this cataclysmic event took place – yet last year scientists were able to observe the event using a detector made from giant tubes and lasers.

The people who came up with that experiment definitely deserve a prize – and this week, rightly, three of them – Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne – were awarded the Nobel prize in physics. In fact, all the science recognised this week is awe-inspiring in different ways. So it seems almost churlish to point out that this year has seen yet another glory parade of “stale white males”. The science speaks for itself – does it really matter who did it?

Perhaps if this were a one-off, it would be easier to shrug and move on. But the last time a woman won a Nobel prize for science was in 2015 when Tu Youyou was recognised for discoveries that led to a treatment for malaria. And you have to go back a full 54 years to find the last female Nobel laureate in physics.

This scarcity of women (and black and minority ethnic men, for that matter) is often put down to the time lag between work being carried out and being rewarded with the highest accolade in science. The awards, it is argued, reflect the make-up of academic institutions way-back-when.

It’s true that the full force of a discovery is not always immediately apparent – it makes sense to let it reach a certain level of maturity. However, it’s also worth remembering that the awards were not always quite so conservative. Alfred Nobel’s will, which turned over much of his wealth to establish the awards, stipulated they should recognise discoveries or inventions made “during the preceding year”.

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