With the 2021 Nobel peace prize winners including only one woman out of thirteen laureates and the 2022 Nobel peace prize nomination deadline looming, many feel as though this award has not been accurately recognizing numerous women’s groundbreaking accomplishments in recent years. But does this award still have the same relevance it once did? It’s hard not to ignore the slow drop in ratings of numerous film, television, and music awards, and yet the Nobel peace prize has seemingly still retained its prestige and unrelenting influence in its recognition of intellectual achievement. Many of us still reminisce over Malala Yousfzai winning the Nobel in 2014 and seeing I am Malala lining bookstore windows just weeks later. It’s undeniable that the Nobel still has the power to influence who we look up to and the world’s ever-evolving values. As such, we must continue to recognize the work and stories of women particularly in underrepresented communities that are so often left off the winner’s list.
Looking back at the 2021 Nobel Prize laureates announcement, many were taken aback by the lack of female representation resulting in significant backlash towards the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The secretary-general of the academy, Goran K. Hansson shared in an AFP interview that the result “reflects on the unfair conditions in society” and to “keep in mind that only about 10% of the professors in natural sciences in western Europe or North America are women, and even lower if you go to East Asia.” While Hansson is correct in pointing out the gap between men and women in the academic world, there is no shortage of women advancing society through their work and a lack of recognition of these underrepresented women only amplifies this gender gap. We are often inclined to view female prize winners as, once in a generation, untouchable pinnacles of intellectual achievement, a label not typically given to male honorees. Although a female laureate’s discovery is most definitely groundbreaking, it is not an isolated phenomenon and the lack of female recognition in Nobel Prize history plays into the intuitive public belief that it is somehow abnormal for a woman to originate an academic or humanitarian breakthrough.
The otherworldly perception of female laureates is exemplified by Marie Curie who remains the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice in 1903 and 1911 for her discovery of radioactivity and polonium and radium respectively. The importance of Curie’s work and recognition by the Nobel committee led to her becoming a global public figure and maintaining this status decades after her passing. In this way, Marie Curie revealed that receiving a Nobel Prize is one of the only means in which a female scientist can achieve celebrity status in the western world. Even over a hundred years after her first win, Hollywood is still producing biographical and fictional movies about her life and one of France’s largest medical and scientific institutions bears her name. Curie’s achievements have ultimately paved the way for modern radiotherapy and she has become one of the few female scientists whose legacy remains known and unhidden beyond the realm of the academic community. As such, the Nobel Prize was crucial to Marie Curie becoming a role model for generations of young women in STEM and with so few female nominees in recent years, we are losing the opportunity to introduce and cultivate new female role models like Curie to the world.
In essence, the Nobel Prize itself shapes the societal conditions that determine whether or not female intellectual achievement becomes a standard. The Nobel holds even greater weight than when it first began as there is no shortage of women making fundamental humanitarian differences, but rather a lack of recognition of these achievements, leaving female role-models invisible to the public eye. As more women begin to enter the nomination pool each year, there exists a firm belief that female accomplishments will eventually become normalized and that brilliant women will be witnessed at a scale not previously possible.
Cover image retrieved from history.com