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Diversity in Science Prizes – A Call to Action: Tell us your views

Is there a diversity issue in international science prizes? We explore this issue and ask our members and the scientific community to share their ideas by taking our online survey.

To take part in the ISC’s Diversity in Science Prizes survey, click here.

It’s been a historic week for women in science. At the start of the week, MIT researcher Esther Duflo became only the second woman to win a Nobel Prize for Economics. She was jointly awarded the prize with her husband and research partner, Abhijit Banerjee, and Michael Kremer of Harvard University, “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.

At the end of the week, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir became the first all-female team to conduct a spacewalk on the International Space Station. In the middle, Cheryl Praeger of the University of Western Australia was awarded the Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for her contributions to pure mathematics, which have influenced how we keep information secure on the internet.

Praeger spoke of her school career advisor who suggested she steer clear of mathematics, with the old adage that “girls don’t do maths”.

“I was so cross and stubborn I got some different advice and ended up being able to study mathematics and science at university”, Prager says.

How many Esthers, Christinas, Jessicas and Cheryls are out there? Women and girls who are worthy of science prizes but are not being recognised, or who are not encouraged and supported to reach their full potential in their chosen field of science? Too many, according to recent articles in Nature and Science.

This year, 11 out of 12 Nobel prize awards in science have gone to men. At a time when women account for 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates in science, the lack of gender balance at the forefront of the field is an alarming call to action. If roughly the same number of women and men embark on a career in science, why there is such an imbalance at the top level?

As quoted in Science, Liselotte Jauffred, a physicist at the University of Copenhagen, said there is a 96% likelihood that it is bias against women, not under-representation, that accounts for the gender distribution seen in the Nobel Prizes. The bias starts long before the Nobel opens a call for nominations and selects its winners: “it’s something that happens in multiple earlier steps”.

Nature notes that it’s not just women lacking recognition through the Nobel Prize process, but also representation from the Global South. The Guardian points out that there are more men called John among Nobel prize winners than men and women from the whole of Africa.

The Nobel Prize is not alone in under-representation of women. The most prestigious awards in mathematics – the Fields Medal and the Abel Prize – have also long been struggling to diversify their list of laureates. However, according to Göran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences which overseas the Nobel Prizes, they are trying to address this issue.

Female scientists continue to face daily challenges throughout their careers, causing many to drop out along the way. This year’s only female Nobel laureate in science, Esther Duflo, points out how difficult it can be for women to succeed and earn respect:

“We are at a time when we are starting to realise in the profession that the way we conduct each other privately and publicly, is not conducive all the time to a very good environment for women. Showing that it is possible for a women to succeed, and to be recognised for success, I hope will inspire many many other women to continue working, and many many other men to give them the respect they deserve, like every single human being”.

Have your say on diversity in science prizes

The ISC is reaching out to its members and the science community to invite them to have their say on how international, regional and national prizes can be more inclusive, including of female scientists and scientists from the Global South.


 Click here to take part – the survey asks you a simple question:

“What are your ideas on how scientific prizes could be diversified to ensure different pools of talent are being sought in the awards process?”

We’ll collate and present your ideas online during the Gender Gap in Science conference meeting in Trieste, Italy in November 2019. The ISC recently published its 2019-2021 Action Plan, Advancing Science as a Global Public Good where we champion our project, Gender Equality in Science: From Awareness to Transformation, as well as projects which ensure representation of scientists and science from the Global South and which strengthen national and regional science systems.

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