The Nobel Prize is the most influential and internationally renowned award, ensuring for its laureates an immediate distinguished reputation. By singling women awardees out we do not intend to glorify those who received it or pity those who did not get such distinction, an unfortunate trap that numerous biographies and articles succumb to (for example Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s 2002 book Nobel Prize women in science: their lives, struggles, and momentous discoveries, and Rachel Swaby’s 2015 book Headstrong: 52 women who changed science – and the world); our intention is to shed a light, as objective as possible, on some key figures of the modern scientific world.

In 94 years (1901-1995), there were ten female Nobel laureates in science. The fact that in the following twenty years the number of female recipients of the Prize rose significantly – to seven women – clearly indicates the progress made in gender equality after World War II and, especially, during the wake of second-wave feminism1. In the first chapter of her book Nobel Prize Women in Science, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne lists four common factors that contributed to those women’s success: supportive parents and husbands, educational institutions (colleges and universities), religious upbringing and the shortage of men during the two World Wars that enabled women to take up male job posts.

In order to fully understand the significance of this prize for women scientists, we should first recall its historical background.


Alfred Nobel explicitly wrote in his last will and testament in 1895 that the Prize should be given once a year to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery”2 within the chosen domain, regardless of their sex. The Nobel Prize winner in Physics and Chemistry should be selected by the Swedish Academy of Sciences2—composed of around 500 members—and the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine by the Karolinska Institute2 (which has around 50 members). The first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901, and the prize in Economic Sciences was established in 1968. By the end of 2016, both of them had been bestowed 573 times upon a total of 900 laureates, 48 of whom were women and seventeen of them scientists.

The first female recipient of a Nobel Prize and the only woman who was ever awarded it twice was Marie Curie, who famously paved the road for women in science. So far, only four married couples have received the Prize jointly: May-Britt and Edvard Moser (2014, Medicine), Gerty and Carl Cori (1947, Medicine), Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot (1935, Chemistry), and Marie and Pierre Curie (1903, Physics). One husband and wife, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, won two different Prizes separately: Alva won the Peace Prize in 1982 and Gunnar the Prize in Economic Science in 1974. A fruitful collaboration between professor Elizabeth Blackburn and her student Carol W. Greider brought about what came to be the first Nobel awarded to a female research team in 2009. Up to World War II, it was common for women to launch themselves into science by their husband’s side (for example, Marie Curie); however, they slowly gained independence and are today entering and conquering the field on their own  (like Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard).


This positive development reflects the evolution of women’s rights from the past century. Starting at the end of the 19th Century, European women were progressively given access to secondary education and to universities. The first women’s colleges opened in Great Britain by the end of the 1860s and the early 1870s, but female students were not given the equivalent degrees to men’s until well into the 20th century3. In 1867, Switzerland was the first country to accept students of both sexes in their universities, resulting in a  quarter of the Faculty of Medicine’s students being female by the turn of the century4. Nevertheless, women encountered and, unfortunately, continue to encounter numerous social obstacles as well as denigration from so-called ‘specialists’ in the fields ranging from psychiatry to philosophy. There were serious speculations on whether women possess the physical and mental strength needed to study as men do: German doctor Paul Julius Möbius published a pamphlet in 1900 titled On the Physiological Idiocy of Women; Max Funke wrote a dissertation in 1910 entitled Are women human beings?, arguing that women are an inferior species to Homo sapiens. High achieving students consistently debunked this myth, with Philippa Garrett Fawcett’s 1890 Cambridge mathematical exam, in which she obtained top scores with a significant advantage (13%) over the second placed man, being perhaps the most notorious example.

Since then, some improvement has been made. Universities, research laboratories and enterprises are, nowadays, more open to appointing women to top positions, partly because of social pressure. There are currently more women scientists than at any other point in history; however, they have to face different types of challenges. Women still have to perform better than their male co-workers in order to prove that they deserve a post and, if they have a family, the bar is set even higher: they feel the need to be perfect at both5. Up to the 1970s, female researchers commonly had to chose between a scientific career or a family in order to be successful. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Gertrude Belle Elion, among others, did so and regarded their job as a child in itself, as they state it in their autobiographies written upon receiving the Nobel Prize. According to some recent research6, women who are successful at what is considered to be a male post suppress their “feminine” side and unveil their tenacity. As a result, they are less liked by their colleagues, who tend to judge them for having reversed traditional gender roles6.

May-Britt Moser, also a recipient of the Madame Beyer Award for “Best female boss” in 2013, greatly illustrates the progress made since the second-wave feminism along with its limitations: despite being an equal partner to her husband ever since her university years, she was at one point relegated to the role of an assistant, a role innumerable predecessors were confined to, when she had to sacrifice her professional career for the sake of the family by abbreviating her stay in a London-based laboratory7.


For the newer generations, born from the 1960s on, coping with gender discrimination may seem like less of an obvious obstacle, but its effect still fierce. Due to its implicit nature, the bias is even harder to detect and eradicate than open hostility8. People are not even aware that they have internalized discriminatory thinking and hold preconceived opinions. To fight this phenomenon, American researchers created an online test in 1998, The Implicit Association Test, or IAT, that helps people find out if they are implicitly biased.

Furthermore, society will not be able to change until it recognizes that its constructions of masculinity and femininity are problematic and based on prejudice.


Taking everything into consideration, women’s situation in science has not changed drastically. As Carol W. Greider so eloquently puts it, women’s path to a career in science is like a leaky pipeline, because those who come into sciences drop out along the way9 (00:48:20-00:51:00). From time to time, prejudice is even more bluntly vocalized by representatives of educational institutions. In 2005, Larry Summers, at the time President of Harvard, publicly expressed his doubts on women’s ability to achieve the same success as men in the world of science because of their “innate” differences10. This kind of discourse leaves a deep impact: women themselves can start unconsciously behaving in accordance with the stereotypes, the so-called stereotype threat that Steele and Aronson describe as the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would confirm that stereotype11 (p.797).

Women laureates are aware of the situation and speak openly about the discrimination and injustice that they have had to put up with. Because they have experienced it, they actively participate in initiatives to diminish the gender gap and are outspoken advocates of the equality movement, as is the case with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard12 and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. With this in mind, Nüsslein-Volhard established a special foundation, the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard-Foundation, for young women scientists with children and Gertrude Belle Elion donated the money received from Burroughs Wellcome Company to Hunter College for women’s fellowships in chemistry and biochemistry13.


Based on statistics and according to what has happened since the second half of the twentieth century, the Nobel prize is expected to be awarded to more women in the future1. In the field of science, female nominees are conventionally white and Western. The Nobel Prize remains essentially a Western prize, and also presents several discrepancies between the number of nominees and the actual winners: if we look at the figures regarding female nominees, we see that between 1901 and 1953, eleven women were nominated for the Prize in Medicine, eleven for the Chemistry Prize (up to 1965) and seven for the Physics Prize (up to 1965). A slight change for the better was, however, observed in 2015, with the first female Chinese laureate, Youyou Tu.

Skeptics have expressed their concern about the fact that attention to gender and ethnic diversity is often only paid as a means to fulfill the quota11. If the latter is true, much more should be done to invert this tendency. After all, real success will only come when the gender of the laureate is no longer relevant and female recipients do not receive a different treatment than men. For this to happen, it is necessary for individuals and societies to unite their efforts.



Hemel, Daniel J. (14 Jan.  2005), “Summers’ Comments on Women and Science Draw Ire”, The Harvard Crimson,   <> (last accessed 22 Jun. 2016).

Hill, Catherine / Christianne Corbett / Andresse St. Rose (2010), Why So Few?: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,  Washington, DC, AAUW, <> (last accessed 14 Jun. 2016).

Horvat, Mojca (2011), “Klara Kukovec (1883–1979), prva zdravnica v Trstu in Mariboru”, Historični seminar 9, ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana, <> (last accessed 14 Jun. 2016).

McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries, second edition, Washington, DC,  Joseph Henry Press.

O’Connor, J J / E F Robertson (Oct. 2003), “Philippa Garrett Fawcett”, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland, <> (last accessed 16 Feb. 2017).

Sigrist, Natalia Tikhonov (2009), “Les femmes et l’université en France, 1860-1914: Pour une historiographie comparée”, Histoire de l’éducation, 122 | 2009, <> (last accessed 22 Jun. 2016).

“Project Implicit” (2011), Project Implicit, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

“Scientific Discovery with Carol Greider – Conversations with History” (6 May 2014), Youtube, uploaded by University of California Television (UCTV), <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

“Nobel Prize Awarded Women” (2014),, Nobel Media AB, <> (last accessed 22 Jun. 2016).


KEYWORDS: Nobel Prize, women in science, gender gap.

Katarina Venta

March 3, 2017

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