The Nobel Prize will not be changing its rules to accommodate gender or ethnicity quotas.
Göran Hansson, the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the body behind the Nobel Prizes, said in an interview that the prizes should go to “those most worthy”, though admits there has been a lack of female recipients and individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds in the past.
Hansson, 70, told the Agence France-Presse that there are “so few women” nominees but that the academy guarantees “all deserving women get a fair chance to be evaluated for the Nobel prize” and “significant efforts” have been made to encourage nominations of women scientists.
“It’s sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past but still existing. And there’s so much more to do,” he said.
“We have decided we will not have quotas for gender or ethnicity. We want every laureate [to] be accepted … because they made the most important discovery, and not because of gender or ethnicity. And that is in line with the spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will.”
“We made sure that we know about the problem and also about subconscious bias in the [prize-awarding] committees and academies. We’ve had lectures by sociologists, we’ve had group discussions, we have put quite a lot of effort into it,” he added.
“In the end, we will give the prize to those who are found the most worthy, those who have made the most important contributions.”
Despite an increasing number of females being nominated in recent years compared with previous decades, Hansson noted the trend was growing “from a very low level”.
“Keep in mind that only about 10 percent of the professors in natural sciences in western Europe or North America are women, and even lower if you go to east Asia,” the Swedish physician added.
“It takes time to evaluate, to get nominations in and evaluate for the Nobel prize… You could even say that this is the situation as it was perhaps one or two decades ago, when the discoveries were made.”
Hansson said the issue of gender quotas was debated a few weeks ago, only to be dismissed on the basis that it may detract from laureates’ legitimacy.
“We have discussed it … but then it would be, we fear, considered that those laureates got the prize because they are women, not because they are the best,” he said.
“Now, there’s no doubt that scientists like Emmanuelle Charpentier or Esther Duflo got the prize because they made the most important contributions,” he noted, referring to last year’s chemistry prize laureates.
“We will make sure that we have an increasing portion of women scientists being invited to nominate. And we will continue to make sure we have women on our committees, but we need help, and society needs to help here.”
“We need different attitudes to women going into sciences … so that they get a chance to make these discoveries that are being awarded.”
This year, investigative journalist Maria Ressa from the Philippines was the only female winner, sharing the Nobel peace prize with fellow journalist Dmitry Muratov, alongside 12 men.
Since their inception in 1901, just 6.2 percent of the Nobel Prize has been award to female recipients — that’s 59 women compared to 913 men.
No females were awarded prizes in sciences this year.
Last year, two women laureates received the chemistry prize — Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were jointly awarded the chemistry prize for their work in gene-editing technology.
In 2019, Esther Duflo was awarded the prize in economic sciences for her contributions to alleviating poverty and a lack of education, a prize she shared with her husband and another Harvard Professor colleague.
Other prominent female laureates include Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 for describing the structure of the insulin molecule using X-ray crystallography, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, awarded the Medicine Prize in 2015 for helping to create anti-malaria medicine and American writer Louise Glück, who received the 2020 Literature Award after a career spanning fifty years that included the publication of 13 books of poetry and two prose collections.
Marie Curie, became the first female laureate, receiving the physics prize in 1903, and then the chemistry prize in 1911. To this day, she remains the only female recipient to have won multiple Nobel prizes.
On Tuesday, New Zealand physicist Laurie Winkless criticised the academy in a series of tweets, calling the Prize ‘outdated’:
“Distressed but not surprised that the organisation has retained its outdated attitudes,” she expressed. “A reminder: if the committee had had their way, Marie Curie would not have received the 1903 physics prize.”