Yale News

As the University celebrates John Goodenough ’44, Yale alumnus and a professor at UT Austin, for his recent Nobel Prize win in Chemistry, many professors across the nation reflected upon a worrying trend, also seen in Yale’s own pool of laureates: Despite increased gender equity in science professorships, women are still receiving less recognition than men for their contributions to their fields.

Sterling Professor of economics Robert Shiller won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2013. Sterling Professor of economics William Nordhaus ’63 won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year. Most recently, John Goodenough ’44 won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in developing the lithium-ion battery. Molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Valerie Horsley said that the 2019 Nobel Prize winners — and those from prior years — have been overwhelmingly male. But this is not very surprising, she said, especially because women face an uphill battle compared to their male counterparts in the sciences.

“Not a single woman won this year in any of the disciplines,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Horsley and other scientists across the nation have taken to Twitter to express their discontent of the gender inequities evident in the list of winners. According to an infographic made by Nature, of 607 Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Physics, just 20 are women.

183 scientists have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and only five women are laureates in the field, according to the Nobel Prize website. In an email to the News, MCDB and immunology professor Akiko Iwasaki also expressed disappointment at the lack of female representation in the Nobel Prizes.

“It just shows that there is severe and pervasive bias in the system that manifests in women not being recognized for their contributions in the highest prizes and awards,” she wrote. “This needs to change. Fast. If we want young talented women to enter science and remain in science.”

According to Iwasaki, studies show that this bias disadvantages women “at every stage” from getting into labs to attaining competitive professorships to receiving due recognition in the form of prizes and awards.

Horsley told the News that some people responded to her tweets regarding the gender discrepancies by pointing out that women have won the award in years past. She said that other people noted that the growing number of women in these fields means that eventually the demographics of recipients will be more equal. Still, Horsley said the issue is more structural and that diversity problems come with many other aspects of a scientist’s job.

In a 2019 Nature article about Nobel Prize diversity, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Secretary General Göran Hansson wrote that women are nominated more often for the prestigious prizes.

“It’s small,” he wrote in the article, “but it’s a trend.”

Hansson said that Alfred Nobel expressly recommended that the prize should be awarded on a merit basis — meaning without consideration of nationality, ethnicity or gender — so quotas for certain criteria will never occur.

“If we go away from that, then we’ve devalued the Nobel Prize, and I think that would harm everyone in the end,” Hansson said.

Still, despite these concerns over the winners, Goodenough is more than qualified for the prize, two Yale scientists told the News. Chemistry professor Hailiang Wang wrote in an email to the News that Goodenough’s win was one that his colleagues “had been expecting … for years.” Wang’s lab has researched the ways in which lithium can be used to improve rechargeable batteries.

Biomedical engineering professor Rong Fan, who recently met Goodenough during a talk at UT Austin, said the laureate impressed him with his scientific prowess. In fact, he wrote in an email to the News, Goodenough’s work convinced him to pursue a career in research.

“[I] just think he is somehow so special to me and really like a lifelong mentor whose story constantly inspired and encouraged me although we only met once,” he wrote.

According to data from the Office of Institutional Research, there are eight female tenured professors and 42 male tenured professors in the biological sciences as of March 2019.

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu

Helena Lyng-Olsen | helena.lyng-olsen@yale.edu