Everyone knows that the Nobel Prizes are a notorious boys club, with men garnering the majority of the prizes since inception. One would have hoped that over time the ratio would have changed. We decided as the 2015 prizes were announced to do some of our own analysis on the gender balance of Nobel winners. The results were not very pretty.
For the data, we turned to Wikipedia and the Nobel Prize Website. I worked with Alice Corona, a data analyst who works with me at Silk.co. This year very few women won Nobels. So we decided to analyze gender statistics for the prizes over time.
The Nobel Prizes have been awarded since 1901. Yet, after more than a century of awards, men dominate the Nobels count to a surprising degree. Women's share of the prizes has been steadily increasing but the Nobels are very clearly a boys club even 115 years later. Even more surprising the best years for women a century ago were not much worse than the best years for women, on average, today. So let's take a look at the data.
Less Than 6% Of Prizes Have Gone to Women
We knew it would be male dominated. But the extent to which this was true surprised us. Less than 6% of the 874 laureates are women (a small number are also organizations - we did not count those). And thank goodness for Marie Curie. She won two Nobel prizes and is counted twice.
Very Slow and Inconsistent Trend Line Up
On the upside, 2015 was a relatively good year for women laureates. A third of the total prize-share (meaning, total count of people who won prizes) went to female laureates. And for the first time ever, we are seeing a string of consecutive increases. This year, 2015, marked the first time that the share of women laureates has grown for three years in a row.
But this trendline has been highly inconsistent. At the 5th Nobel edition, in 1905, women made up an astonishing 20% of all the Nobel winners. The count dropped back to 0% the very next year in 1906. There have also been long gaps without a single woman in the winners' list. Nobel prizes were 100% male-dominated for 13 years between 1912 and 1925, and then again between 1948 and 1962. To date, 2009 was the best year for women laureates. Almost 40% were women, taking home 42% of the prize share. Alas, it was only a lucky coincidence rather than the beginning of a structural change. The next year, the percentage again dropped to zero.
Mostly Peace and Lit, Very Few Hard Science Laureates
Of the only 46 Nobels awarded to at least one female laureate, more than 60% of the prizes were for Peace or Literature. Only four of the 172 Chemistry laureates (sharing 107 Nobel prizes) went to women. In Physics, there have been only 2 women laureates. They were Marie Curie (again) in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, more than half a century ago. Both shared the medal with male physicists. This means that, in total, women have garnered only 0.46% of the total prize share for the Physics field.
Hopefully, the current upward trend will continue. There are some hopeful signs as women make up a higher and higher percentage of college students. That said, women continue to lag men in earning hard science degrees. So, to a degree, the disparity in the hard science Nobel's relates to the relative scarcity of women in academic positions in universities and research institutions in the hard sciences. Still, "... in 2013, women earned half of the bachelor's degrees awarded in science and engineering and 38 percent of doctorates, but they only made up 26 percent of tenured faculty members." writes Scienceline. So even with the comparatively lower numbers of women in the field, the ratio of Nobel's awarded to women in the hard sciences should be significantly higher today.
We'll do an update on our data next year and see if the trend continues. Until then, stay tuned.