Monday, November 3, 2014

No Women Physics Nobel Prizes in 50 Years

The number of women who have received Nobel prizes in all fields is shockingly low, particularly in physics where the only two prizes ever awarded were Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.  There have been no physics Nobel prizes in 50 years!  I recently read an interesting article on the statistics and possible reasons written by Matt Petronzio in US & World on-line.

Before discussing reasons, let's look at the facts.  The figure below shows the number of women and men receiving the Nobel prize in the various categories between 1901 and 2014.  The ratio of men to women is amazingly small, ranging from 1% in physics to 17% in peace.  In physics, this can be compared to about 20% women receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees.


A key reason to explain the low fraction is that the prize is usually for discoveries made many years prior to the award and there were fewer female physicists in the past.  Looking at past physics awards, my guess at the typical time from discovery to award is 20 years.  The age of awardees is increasing as shown in the figure below, and this time between discovery and award is increasing.


To consider the effect of this growing time lag on the fraction of women awardees, we can consider what the fraction of women physicist was in the past.  This is illustrated in the figure below of percent female doctorates and postdoctorates in the past.  The number of postdoctorate female physicists 20 years ago was ~9%, compare with ~18% now, indeed much lower.   However, it is still hard to understand how the ratio of prize winners is as low as 1%.  Even in the 1970's there were significantly more than 1% women physicists.


There are other factors one could imagine playing a role, such as conscious or unconscious bias. This is hard to quantify and assess.  We can only hope that the fraction starts increasing in the coming decade.