Science prizes won by women ‘offer less cash and prestige’

Analysis of awards in biology and biomedical sciences between 1968 and 2017 suggests women increasingly likely to win prizes for ‘service’ over research

January 18, 2019
Holding a prize cup
Source: Alamy

Women who win prizes for their scientific endeavours receive less money and prestige than their male counterparts, according to an analysis highlighting the gender gap in scholarly recognition.

Examining records for major prizes awarded in biology and biomedical sciences over a 50-year period, a team of researchers led by Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organisational change at Northwestern University in Illinois, found that female scientists won an average of 64 cents for every dollar won by a man.

Although women’s share of the prizes grew from 5 per cent in the decade ended 1977 to 27 per cent by 2017, the data suggest that they are still grossly under-represented in the prizewinning community, given that women hold about half of all PhDs in the subjects analysed.

When the top 5 per cent of the prizes in monetary value were considered, only 14.6 per cent of the recipients were women. Overall, female prizewinners received an average of $161,782 (£125,370), compared with $251,115 for men.

In a comment article in Nature outlining the findings, Professor Uzzi and colleagues conclude that “top prizes in science are heavily biased towards men”.

The paper uses lists of science prizes on Wikipedia and the average monthly page views for particular prizes to calculate a crude measure of the perceived prestige of each award. Of the 50 per cent most prestigious prizes, women won only 17.4 per cent of awards between 2008 and 2017, the researchers found.

Meanwhile female scientists were over-represented in honours given for non-research services, such as teaching, advocacy, mentoring and support, and that tendency had intensified over the 50-year period, Professor Uzzi said.

Between 2008 and 2017, women won 50 per cent of the service prizes and 27 per cent of the research prizes, he explained, a pattern “consistent with [the]…‘Matilda hypothesis’ – that women receive less credit for their scientific work than they deserve, which can unduly hamper their advancement”.

The paper says the findings were significant because “prizewinning puts a scientist on the radar of their peers, the media, funding agencies, tenure committees and the public”.

“The tracking of prizes could help to raise awareness and to correct gender imbalances in recognition, providing another baseline against which to check progress,” the authors add. “That in itself would be a win for the scientific community.”

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