Topic dossier | Women and the Nobel Prize

57 out of 934 – that’s how many (or few) women have been honored with a Nobel Prize in the past 120 years. A shockingly low rate. A change seems to be on the way this year: a total of three women were honored with the highest scientific award. A reason to take a closer look at the role of women in science.

Fortunately, the times when women were not allowed to study are long gone - in Germany for about 110 years. Today, in most countries, about the same number of women and men study. Nevertheless, more men are active in university or non-university research. And the scientific community is still dominated by men. Studies also show that more women than men leave the scientific community from one scientific career level to the next. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the proportion of women in research and development work worldwide is less than 30 percent.

But why is it like that? And what possibilities are there to improve the career situation for women in science? And with it the number of Nobel Prize winners?

Women's share of Nobel Prizes only 6 percent!

934 laureates and 28 organizations received the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 2020.

Of these, 57 were women. 

The proportion of women among researchers is 33 percent on average in the EU and 28 percent in Germany.

A quarter of all professorships in Germany are held by women.

Gender equality in the scientific community works better in the humanities than in STEM subjects.

The Matilda Effect and the systematic invisibility of women in science

Lise Meitner in conversation.
Lise Meitner in conversation.

When talking about the discoverers of the DNA double helix, two names come to mind: James Watson and Francis Crick. It was a woman, Rosalind Franklin, who made an important - if not the most important - contribution to the structural elucidation of our genome with her X-ray diffraction images. Your omission is called the Matilda Effect : the systematic suppression of the contributions of women in research. Another prominent example is the physicist Lise Meitner. She worked with Otto Hahn for decades and realized in 1939 that they had discovered nuclear fission together. Hahn was the only one to receive a Nobel Prize.

Female researchers play a subordinate role in perception. Their work and their skills are often downplayed. Science itself is also concerned with this gender gap. On the one hand, there is culturally evolved behavior and thinking. And on the other hand, young female scientists experience very pragmatic hurdles on their career path.

Women are less visible

For centuries, men have set the tone in science. This also includes the issue of communication. For example, who and whose invention is being talked about? Successful female researchers are now becoming more visible to the public. Nevertheless, male speakers still dominate scientific conferences. The articles on female researchers on Wikipedia are also shorter or incomplete. The Equal Opportunities Officer of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Tübingen, Annette Denziger, expressed the following assessment in your interview with the magazine Spektrum: "The form of communication in a system dominated by men is male. Women are simply less visible and therefore disadvantaged.” And this circumstance adds up over the career stages – and contributes to the enormous imbalance in the Nobel Prizes.


The proportion of female researchers is also low because female applicants are more often screened out in application and appointment procedures. Jo Handelsman of Yale University studied this behavior. He sent an application for a position as a laboratory manager – sometimes under a male name, sometimes under a female name – to over 100 American professors. The result was that they rated male applicants as more qualified than an identical application from a woman. They also offered male applicants a higher salary. Interesting about this one Study is that female professors were also biased and gave preference to male applicants.

Postdoc time and starting a family

Family work is still mostly in the hands of women. Nevertheless, an academic career demands maximum flexibility from expectant mothers. They often have to move, often do not get a permanent job and should also take jobs abroad if possible. As a result, many women tend to withdraw entirely from the academic world.

What can we do?

It takes more female role models, even in everyday situations. A very prominent example is the story of Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani. In 2014, she became the first woman to receive the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics. This was an eye-opening exception and a wake-up call for many bright young women. But TV heroines can also be role models. A study showed that Dana Scully from "The X-Files" encouraged girls and women to become scientists. Motto: If she can do it, I can do it too.

Previous measures for girls and young women usually reach the talented and already STEM enthusiasts. Future offerings will need to be adjusted to accommodate them reach average gifted girls.

domestic Support of female scientists who are mothers can help more women to pursue a scientific career.

A fixed one quota for women in the natural sciences there is none. If you look at the targeted, voluntary quota of 30 percent women on business executive boards, there is still a lot of catching up to do. However, a quota for women is controversial, even for female scientists. They perceive a quota as unworthy. 

Dany Scully from "The X Files" served as a role model for many young girls, Photo: Uriel Valentin, Mediodescocido Art Dolls
Dany Scully from "The X Files" served as a role model for many young girls, Photo: Uriel Valentin, Mediodescocido Art Dolls

What is already being done?

There are many measures and initiatives around the world that aim to get young women interested in science, especially MINT subjects, and to prepare them for research jobs. And many public institutions and large companies have an equality department or set up quotas for women. In addition, there are always campaigns that aim to attract social attention or show personal commitment. We would like to mention some of them here.

  • In 2015, the United Nations created the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It is celebrated annually on February 11th.
  • The United Nations Women has the so-called Women's Empowerment Principles - WEPs The Principles offer guidance to companies on how to promote gender equality in the workplace and in society.
  • Many research institutions and universities have set up their own childcare. Nobel Prize winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard has one Foundation founded for young scientists with children. She also set up an in-house crèche at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen.
  • In 2018, scientists Jess Wade and Maryam Zaringhala reported in a Articles points out that the biographies of important female scientists are missing on Wikipedia or that their work is generally underrepresented. They call for a rethink. An initiative that arose from this are the so-called edit-a-thons. Interested parties can meet for a few days and develop texts or biographies on female scientists together and publish them on Wikipedia.
  • The zdi heroines October works to ensure that female researchers become more visible and that young girls serve as role models. For one month, zdi focuses on the outstanding work of the zdi networks and student laboratories, lets a large number of STEM women have their say in zdi.NRW’s social media and shows every day how exciting and multifaceted the STEM field is is for girls. In addition, zdi has the brochure "zdi - girls and STEM" issued. It includes recommendations for action for the organization and implementation of courses for girls. 

"We're not less talented or anything!"

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. She received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1995. She always reacted a little annoyed when asked about how special it was that she was a woman and received the Nobel Prize. "We're not inferior or anything. Why shouldn't I get a Nobel Prize?" (WDR5, time sign, 09.10.2020)


Since the Nobel Prize was awarded, the number of female laureates has increased. But their share is still very small. The many measures to support female scientists and increase the visibility of their achievements give reason to hope that more female scientists will be invited to the award ceremony in Stockholm in the future.

This year's Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Director of the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, shares this optimism. In her estimation, the scientific community is becoming more modern and more women are involved in managerial positions. (Source: euronews, October 7.10.2020, XNUMX)

zdi heroines!

In order to encourage girls and young women to deal with MINT subjects, to pursue their passion and to decide on studying or training in the MINT field, zdi.NRW organizes the zdi-Heldinnen-Oktober every year. We show role models who tell their story to encourage others to choose STEM.

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