Female scientists less likely to win prizes named after men

Survey of more than 9,000 prizewinners reiterates ‘urgent’ need to tackle gender representation, authors say 

May 25, 2022
Thousands of books on shelves inside the Trinity College Library Dublin
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Women are less likely to win academic prizes named after men, according to a study of awardees in geography and cardiology.

On average, only about 15 per cent of the more than 9,000 awardees studied were women, dropping to just under 12 per cent if the prize in question was named after a man.

The findings, presented at a European Geoscience Union meeting in Vienna, add to evidence that academic prizes are exacerbating gender inequalities in academia.

Awards either not named after a person or named for a woman had higher proportions of female winners – about 32 and 47 per cent respectively, the study of prizes in earth and environmental sciences and cardiology found.

“Our analysis shows that the naming of scientific awards and prizes may be associated with a possible gender bias in the recognition of talent,” said Katja Gehmlich, associate professor in the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Birmingham and co-author of the study.

“This suggests an urgent need for changes in award and nomination policies to overcome persistent gender inequalities in the recognition of scientific achievements and excellence.”

It is not the first time academic prizes and medals have been found to reproduce or amplify gender inequalities. A previous study looking at major prizes awarded in biology and biomedical sciences over a 50-year period found that female scientists won an average of 64 cents for every dollar won by a man.

The 2019 analysis, led by Brian Uzzi at Northwestern University, found that female scientists were also increasingly over-represented in honours given for non-research services, such as teaching, mentoring and support.

“Scientific prizes, awards and medals are important indicators of scientific excellence and also have a direct impact on career prospects, tenure and promotion procedures,” said Stefan Krause, chair of ecohydrology and biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham, who worked on the most recent study.

“Under-representation of female talent when recognising scientific excellence therefore has wide-ranging repercussions for gender inequalities.”

The authors suggest that policies for naming awards or nomination criteria could be reviewed, such as by broadening the pool of nominators. Award panels could also be trained and more women encouraged to self-nominate, they add.

At about 6 per cent, there have long been concerns about the under-representation of women among Nobelists. Chemists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna made history as the first double female winners in 2020.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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