Mind the gap: Women underrepresented in prestigious prizes

New study said science awards still heavily skewed towards men as experts weigh in on all-male laureates for Israel’s 2019 Wolf Prize.

Professor Rivka Carmi 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Professor Rivka Carmi 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Female scientists remain significantly underrepresented in the awarding of prestigious prizes, a new study has revealed.  This was recently reinforced with the release of a list of all-male winners for Israel’s 2019 Wolf Prize. Leading academics contend that the thorny issue of gender parity could be resolved if institutions take a proactive approach to the problem and widen the pool of candidates.
The research, published in the scientific journal Nature, analyzed prizewinning in the sciences and found that men receive disproportionate recognition and the awards women do receive are generally less well-known and carry a smaller monetary reward.
“Elinor Ostrom is the only woman to have won a Nobel Prize for economics in 2009, and mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani remains the sole female winner of the Fields Medal in 2014,” the authors of the study wrote, qualifying, however, that the disparity is less pronounced in biomedicine.
Overall, researchers discovered that women make up only 13.8 percent of recipients for the most prestigious prizes. And even with respect o biomedicine, from 1968-2017 there were a total of “525 prizes won by 2,738 men and 437 women.”
The study came out shortly after the announcement of the winners of the Wolf Prize, often viewed as a predictor of future Nobel Prize recipients. The list of seven Wolf laureates includes architect Moshe Safdie and molecular geneticist Jeffrey Friedman, among others. Notably, last year’s winners also consisted uniquely of men.
At a ceremony announcing the 2019 winners, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said that promoting “excellence in scientific research and in the arts is one of the State of Israel’s key goals.”
Rivlin added that “the [Wolf] Foundation would do well to make sure that each year they find a groundbreaking woman scientist and artist, who certainly exist, and award her a prize.”
Since 1978, the Wolf Prize, which comes with $100,000, is awarded in the following six fields: Agriculture, Mathematics, Medicine, Chemistry, Physics and the Arts. Laureates are selected from around the globe by committees comprising “renowned experts,” according to the foundation’s website. Past winners include Marc Chagall, Stephen Hawking and Paul McCartney, to name a few.
Of the 82 leading artists and scientists who have won the award in the past decade, only seven were women. 
“We don’t reveal the judges’ identities so they can avoid being swayed by people they know,” a Wolf Foundation official related to The Media Line. “The juries receive all the candidate files and hold a conference call to decide the winners.
“The foundation has no influence over [the number of women winners] and we would be very happy if academic institutions submitted more female candidates for this prize,” the official continued.
“The winners of today began their research and academic careers 30-40 years ago, on average, and are generally older. It’s clear that back then women pursued fewer academic and research career paths. Today, the story has changed and thus we believe that in the future the issue of representation will improve.”
The ratio of women winning the Wolf Prize is similar to that of the Nobel Prize, which has been awarded to 51 women compared to 853 men. This ratio improved somewhat in the past decade, with 16 female laureates in contrast to some 100 men. Each year, thousands of professors, scientists, previous Nobel winners and members of parliamentary assemblies submit candidates for consideration to four leading Swedish and Norwegian institutes.
Professor Rivka Carmi, former President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, served as a member of the Advisory Board of the Genesis Prize Foundation and also previously chaired a governmental committee promoting female representation in higher education. The Genesis Prize is a $1 million award given annually to individuals, generally Jewish people, that have made significant contributions to improving the world.
When it comes to winning prestigious awards “the numbers speak for themselves,” Prof. Carmi asserted to The Media Line. “It’s amazing how low the number of women is. There are a high number of qualified women but they just don’t seem to come to mind for these committees when they are selecting candidates.
“I was always making a point of nominating as many women as I could to various prizes or committees because the more women you have on those committees, the better the understanding of this issue.”
Prof. Carmi suggests that women have a tendency to not self-nominate or publicize their achievements to the degree of their male counterparts, and for these reasons institutions must make a greater effort to recognize their work. She added that in her experience female candidates were held to different standards during the nomination processes.
“There is no open discrimination but there is an innate disadvantage to women; they are judged more strictly than men,” Prof. Carmi opined, describing the matter as “a hidden unconscious bias.”
Dr. Mary K. Feeney, an Associate Professor at the School of Public Affairs in Arizona State University, has worked on a number of selection committees and, like Prof. Carmi, believes academic systems generally favor male candidates.
“In the case of the Wolf Prize, chances are that the president and the chancellor of top universities [who forward the candidate lists] are men and their networks are going to be primarily male,” Dr. Feeney told The Media Line. “The Wolf Prize needs to go to the most qualified or deserving candidate, but [they also] need to increase the pool of candidates they’re considering. The foundation has some obligation to do that.”
Even though the guidelines state that the prize is awarded irrespective of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political views, “it’s not ensuring that the nomination process is inclusive of a diverse set of scientists,” Dr. Feeney concluded.
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