Tuesday, October 18, 2011

lady laureates, revisited

Curt Rice, Vice President for R&D at the University of Tromsø in Norway, has a smart post on his blog today regarding the Nobel Peace Prize committee's embarrassing track record for recognizing women. As I noted recently, the number of all-time female Peace Prize laureates jumped up from 12 to 15 this year—that's an increase of 25 percent with just one award! Unfortunately it still means that 85 percent of Peace Prize recipients have been male. As Rice rightly asks, does this mean that only 85 percent of men have done valuable work for peace?

In one sense, it's laudable that the Nobel Peace Prize committee appears to be trying to make up for past omissions by giving three women the prize in one year. At the same time, it's hard to disagree with Rice's assertion that in so doing, the committee devalues the impact of the award, not only because it forces three people to share the prize money but because this award seems to throw together three women working in three different arenas just for the sake of numbers. Peace Prizes have been split before, but that's only happened when awardees were co-recipients with organizations or when they were working together toward the same specific goal. One might counter the notion that this year's three-way-split is unfair by arguing that giving the prize to three unrelated people—regardless of gender—spreads the wealth, if not literally then figuratively, by drawing attention to three causes rather than just one. And I have no doubt that if you ask any of this year's recipients they'd say they're thrilled simply to be awarded, jointly or no. But Rice's point here is a valid and important one: The vast majority of the time, individual men have taken home the gold and the glory, so lumping three women together under the banner of advancing women's struggle for peace makes it seem like the work of each individual recipient isn't worthy of the award on its own.

Rice further suggests that to improve the situation, the Nobel Peace Prize committee might consider adding a quota system by which they force themselves to award women a certain percentage of prizes from year to year. The idea of gender quotas may be controversial, but it's one I've come to favor in recent years, not necessarily in the realm of international awards but in response to the deplorable percentage of women we see in government, particularly here in the United States. To wit, according to the fascinating quotaProject, a database of quotas for women in government around the world, countries as diverse as Albania, Honduras, Rwanda, and Sweden have achieved success in implementing gender quotas in some part of their election structure. And as Rice points out, "Research shows that gender balance enhances quality. Quotas have not reduced the quality of corporate Boards, and there is no reason to expect they will reduce the quality of Peace Prize recipients, either."

Of course, for me this discussion only begs the question, Why stop at the Peace Prize? As I've written previously, the total number of Nobel Prizes awarded to women has been nothing short of pitiful. At the top of this post you'll see the latest version of the chart I created showing all female Nobel Laureates. To date, women have still only received 8 percent of all Nobels given to individuals. You think 15 percent of Peace Prizes going to women is bad? Try 11 percent for literature; 5 percent for physiology or medicine; 2 percent for chemistry; 1 percent for physics; and 1 percent for the Prize for Economic Sciences.

Admittedly, the candidate pool of women for some of the science prizes is, at least for now, smaller than for the peace prize; in the areas of physics and chemistry in particular, there have simply been significantly fewer women than men producing paradigm-shifting research. But that doesn't mean they don't exist and couldn't be expressly sought out for recognition now and again. Furthermore, the numbers argument doesn't really fly for an area like literature; there are plenty of deserving female authors out there. So the question is: If the Nobel organizers begin to consider whether to actively consider gender in rewarding seminal work in the field of peace then shouldn't they do the same for the other awards? To be sure, each Nobel and the Prize in Economic Sciences is awarded by a different committee, using different rules, but for the sake of argument I'll suggest this rule change should be considered wholesale.

My vote would be to give the various committees a probationary period of 10 years or so to self-correct, but then after that, if no significant improvement in female representation is seen, then yes, some sort of weighted quota system should be implemented. Of course, it's certainly possible that this issue will someday be moot—one look at the winners of this year's Google Science Fair has to bring hope for that. But the Nobels are in many ways an important tool for promoting continued excellence in science and the humanities, and there's no reason the world shouldn't hear the message now that women are just as capable and valued as are men in the Nobel disciplines.

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