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Why more women don't win Nobel prizes in science

One of the 2018 Nobel prizes in physics went to Donna Strickland, a major accomplishment for any scientist. Yet much of the news coverage has focused on the fact that she’s only the third female physicist to receive the award, after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer 60 years later.

2018年,诺贝尔物理学奖获奖名单出炉,奖项得主之一是唐娜·斯特里克兰(Donna Strickland),她摘得科学界至高殊荣。然而很多媒体报道聚焦的角度却在她是继居里夫人(Marie Curie ,1903年获诺贝尔物理学奖)与玛丽·格佩特-迈耶(Maria Goeppert-Mayer ,1963年获诺贝尔物理学奖)后史上第三位获诺贝尔物理学奖的女性。

Though biochemical engineer Frances Arnold also won this year, for chemistry, the rarity of female Nobel laureates raises questions about women’s exclusion from education and careers in science. Female researchers have come a long way over the past century. But there’s overwhelming evidence that women remain underrepresented in the Stem fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

尽管美国女性生物化学工程师弗朗西斯·阿诺德(Frances Arnold)同样赢得了今年的诺贝尔化学奖,但女性诺贝尔奖得主的罕见引发了人们对女性是否被排除在科学教育和事业之外的疑问。过去的百余年间,女性科研者已取得了长足的进步。但有确凿的证据表明, Stem(即科学、技术、工程和数学)领域的女性代表人物仍十分鲜见。

Studies have shown those who persist in these careers face explicit and implicit barriers to advancement. Bias is most intense in fields that are predominantly male, where women lack a critical mass of representation and are often viewed as tokens or outsiders.


When women achieve at the highest levels of sports, politics, medicine and science, they serve as role models for all of us, especially for girls and other women. But are things getting better in terms of equal representation? And what still holds women back in the classroom, in the lab, in leadership and as award winners?


Specious stereotypes


Traditional stereotypes hold that women ‘don’t like math’ and ‘aren’t good at science’. Both men and women report these viewpoints – but researchers have empirically disputed them. Studies show that girls and women avoid Stem education not because of cognitive inability, but because of early exposure and experience with Stem, educational policy, cultural context, stereotypes and a lack of exposure to role models.


For the past several decades, efforts to improve the representation of women in Stem fields have focused on countering these stereotypes with educational reforms and individual programmes that can increase the number of girls entering and staying in what’s been called the Stem pipeline – the path from primary and secondary school to university to postgraduate training.


These approaches are working. Women are increasingly likely to express an interest in Stem careers and pursue Stem majors in university. Women now make up half or more of workers in psychology and social sciences and are increasingly represented in the scientific workforce, though computer and mathematical sciences are an exception. According to the American Institute of Physics, women earn about 20% of bachelor’s degrees and 18% of PhDs in physics, an increase from 1975 when women earned 10% of bachelor’s degrees and 5% of PhDs in physics.

目前情况已有起色。越来越多的女性表现出从事Stem领域事业的兴趣并且在大学期间攻读Stem专业。女性如今占到心理学和社会科学从业人员的一半甚至以上,她们在除计算机和数学外的其他科学从业人员中的占比也越来越高。据美国物理研究所(American Institute of Physics)相关数据显示,如今获物理学学士学位的人中约有20%是女性,物理学博士学位的人中女性占比18%,数字相较于1975年有所增加。1975年,仅有10%的物理学学士学位获得者和5%的物理学博士学位获得者是女性。

More women are graduating with Stem PhDs and earning faculty positions. But they go on to encounter glass cliffs and ceilings as they advance through their academic careers.


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Stem ceiling


Women face a number of structural and institutional barriers in academic Stem careers.

女性在 Stem学术生涯中会面临众多结构性与制度性壁垒。

In addition to issues related to the gender pay gap, the structure of academic science often makes it difficult for women to get ahead in the workplace and to balance work and life commitments. Bench science can require years of dedicated time in a laboratory. The strictures of the tenure-track process can make maintaining work-life balance, responding to family obligations, and having children or taking family leave difficult, if not impossible.


Additionally, working in male-dominated workplaces can leave women feeling isolated, perceived as tokens and susceptible to harassment. Women often are excluded from networking opportunities and social events and left to feel they’re outside the culture of the lab, the academic department and the field.


When women lack critical mass – of about 15% or more – they are less empowered to advocate for themselves and more likely to be perceived as a minority group and an exception. When in this minority position, women are more likely to be pressured to take on extra service as ‘tokens’ on committees or as mentors to female graduate students.


With fewer female colleagues, women are less likely to build relationships with female collaborators and support and advice networks. This isolation can be exacerbated when women are unable to participate in work events or attend conferences because of family or child care responsibilities and an inability to use research funds to reimburse child care.


Universities, professional associations, and federal funders have worked to address a variety of these structural barriers. Efforts include creating family-friendly policies, increasing transparency in salary reporting, enforcing Title IX protections in the US, providing mentoring and support programmes for women scientists, protecting research time for women scientists, and targeting women for hiring, research support and advancement.

大学、行业协会及美国联邦基金等采取了一些举措以解决此类结构性壁垒的问题。这些举措包括推进家庭友好型政策的颁布,增加薪酬公布的透明度,加快推进美国教育法修正案第九条(Title IX,旨在推动女性获得平等工作机会)的保护措施等,为女性科学家提供辅导及帮扶项目,给予女性科学家充足科研时间的保障,并且在招聘、科研支持及职业发展等方面倾向女性。

These programmes have mixed results. For example, research indicates that family-friendly policies such as leave and onsite child care can exacerbate gender inequity, resulting in increased research productivity for men and increased teaching and service obligations for women.


All of us – the general public, the media, university employees, students and professors – have ideas of what a scientist and a Nobel Prize winner looks like. That image is predominantly male, white and older – which makes sense given 97% of the science Nobel Prize winners have been men.

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全社会——包括普罗大众、媒体、大学雇员、学生和教授等——一般都觉得科学家和诺贝尔奖得主多为男性、白种人、年纪稍长——这么想也有道理。因为 97% 的诺贝尔科学类奖项得主都是男性。

This is an example of an implicit bias: one of the unconscious, involuntary, natural, unavoidable assumptions that all of us, men and women, form about the world around us. People make decisions based on subconscious assumptions, preferences and stereotypes – sometimes even when they are counter to their explicitly held beliefs.


Research shows that an implicit bias against women as experts and academic scientists is pervasive. It manifests itself by valuing, acknowledging and rewarding men’s scholarship over women’s scholarship. Implicit bias can work against women’s hiring, advancement and recognition of their work. For instance, women seeking academic jobs are more likely to be viewed and judged based on personal information and physical appearance. Letters of recommendation for women are more likely to raise doubts and use language that results in negative career outcomes.


Implicit bias can affect women’s ability to publish research findings and gain recognition for that work. Men cite their own papers 56% more than women do. Known as the “Matilda Effect”, there is a gender gap in recognition, award winning and citations. Women’s research is less likely to be cited by others and their ideas are more likely to be attributed to men. Women’s solo-authored research takes twice as long to move through the review process. Women are underrepresented in journal editorships, as senior scholars and lead authors, and as peer reviewers. This marginalisation in research gatekeeping positions works against the promotion of women’s research.

隐性偏见将影响女性发布研究成果及因自身努力获得认可的能力。相较于女性,男性引用自己的论文的几率要多56%。这种在认可度、获奖率、引用数方面的男女差距被称“玛蒂尔达效应”(Matilda Effect)。比起男性,女性的研究成果被引用的概率更低,而她们的想法也大多会归为男性所有。女性作为单独一作的学术文章其发表的审核周期是男性作品的两倍。期刊编辑领域如担任高级学者、第一作者及同侪评审等的女性鲜少。研究把关人职位上的性别边缘化也不利于女性科研的进步。

When a woman becomes a world-class scientist, implicit bias works against the likelihood that she will be invited as a keynote or guest speaker to share her research findings, thus lowering her visibility in the field and the likelihood that she will be nominated for awards. This gender imbalance is notable in how infrequently women experts are quoted in news stories on most topics.


Women scientists are afforded less of the respect and recognition that should come with their accomplishments. Research shows that when people talk about male scientists and experts, they’re more likely to use their surnames and more likely to refer to women by their first names. Why does this matter? Because experiments show that individuals referred to by their surnames are more likely to be viewed as famous and eminent. In fact, one study found that calling scientists by their last names led people to consider them 14% more deserving of a National Science Foundation career award.

人们给予女性科学家与其成就相称的尊重和认可是少于男性的。研究表明,当人们谈到男性科学家或男性专家时,人们更有可能使用他们的姓氏,而在谈到女性科学家或女性专家时,却更会使用她们的名字来指代女性。为何这点很重要?因为实验表明,以姓氏来指代的个人更有可能被认为声名显赫。事实上,有研究发现,以姓氏称呼科学家让人们觉得这些科学家应该被国家科学基金会(National Science Foundation)授予成就奖的几率高出了 14%。

Strickland winning a Nobel Prize as an associate professor in physics is a major accomplishment; doing so as a woman who has almost certainly faced more barriers than her male counterparts is, in my view, monumental.


When asked what it felt like to be the third female Nobel laureate in physics, Strickland noted that at first it was surprising to realise so few women had won the award. “But, I mean, I do live in a world of mostly men, so seeing mostly men doesn’t really ever surprise me either,” she said.


Seeing mostly men has been the history of science. Addressing structural and implicit bias in Stem will hopefully prevent another half-century wait before the next woman is acknowledged with a Nobel Prize for her contribution to physics. I look forward to the day when a woman receiving the most prestigious award in science is newsworthy only for her science and not her gender.




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