The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, defends its impartiality on the physics, chemistry, and economic sciences prizes and won’t discuss the question of women awardees. “There is an attitude that scientists are not influenced by nonscientific concerns, like discrimination against women,” says Elisabeth Crawford. “What counts is expertise.”
Yet Crawford points out that once the initial pool of candidates is drawn up for the three science prizes, the committee cuts loose on such factors as age, nationality, and connections. And gender? “It is not in their frame of mind to consider women as women to offset this imbalance,” Crawford says, noting that almost all of the women who won science prizes shared them with male colleagues. Most women, though, are ignored, as in the case of Lise Meitner, codiscoverer of nuclear fission, who was not included in the 1944 chemistry prize with Otto Hahn. Although the two collaborated extensively, “they were able to dismiss her in a way that it is hard to imagine for a man,” says Ruth Lewin Sime, a chemist at Sacramento City College who wrote Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics.
Defenders of the Nobel point out that the prizes simply mirror what’s going on in the sciences. In the U.S., for instance, although the number of science and engineering doctorates awarded to women increased 69 percent between 1985 and 1996, according to the National Science Foundation, 49 percent of the male faculty at four-year universities are full professors compared with only 24 percent of the female faculty. In 1999, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report showing gender discrimination in its school of science on such issues as hiring, promotions, allocation of laboratory space, and research money.
In 1995, Ebba Witt-Brattstrm published a state report on women in Swedish universities. It found that only 9 percent of professors in all fields were women, and only 2 percent in the sciences. The study caused an uproar, with a scandalized press spinning into overdrive. “They said I had applied a political analysis to issues that were about quality,” Witt-Brattstrm recalls. “More men had simply proved they were competent.” However, two years later, two women scientists who were denied postdoctoral fellowships with the Swedish Medical Research Council showed that women needed to publish approximately two to three times as often as men to get research grants.
All of these issues play a role in keeping women outside the Nobel circuit. “As soon as we have more women in upper-level positions, we will have more women prizewinners,” affirms Solgerd Bjrn-Rasmussen, chief information officer at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. She emphasizes that the nominations for the Nobel come from scientists who are eligible because they have already won or are widely recognized for their work.
If the sciences aren’t welcoming to women, neither are the institutions that grant the prizes. No women sit on the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation, and though women are well-represented in mid-level positions at the secretariat of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, not one sits on the governing council. The Swedish Academy, which presents the literature prize, has a slightly better record: 4 out of 18 members are women.
Alfred Nobel intended the prizes to recognize work that benefits humanity, perhaps partly to assuage his guilt as the inventor of dynamite. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes. Robert Marc Friedman, professor of the history of science at the University of Oslo, who is finishing a book on the physics and chemistry prizes, says, “I think there are some committee members who would be delighted to support women, and others who are on the side of the boys. In the future, the real question is, will they be open to change?”
Gretchen Sidhu writes regularly for Ms.