Unconscious bias and barriers: No Nobel Prizes for women

Francis Peyton Rous Nobel Prize Medal at Auction

Another year, another disappointing lack of women on the list of Nobel Prize winners.

Women are massively underrepresented in science industries, and the women who work in science are significantly less likely to be recognised for their work. And the list of Nobel Prize winners demonstrates this, with only 2.9% of these awards being awarded to women in history.

So lets break it down a bit:

  • 203 people have won the Nobel Prize for Physics in history, only two of these prizes have been given to women (Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963)
  • 171 people have won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in history, only four of these prizes have been given to women.
  • 211 people have won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in history, 12 of these have been women.
  • It has been 53 years since a women won the Nobel prize in Physics

And this is not because women aren’t doing great science, or that women aren’t being nominated for the accolade. In fact, Lise Meitner was nominated 48 times by different people, between the years of 1937 and 1965, but never received recognition. And the recent occurrence of the hashtag

#NobelForVeraRubin on the Twittersphere shows how much this issue is starting to enrage people.

Vera Rubin discovered the anomalies in the way the galaxies rotate, which provided considerable evidence for one of the most influential theories in astrophysics – the existence of dark matter. Despite her huge contributions to this monumental discovery, she has never received a Nobel Prize for her work, despite the many scientists and non-scientists who want her work recognised.

Science Writer, Matthew Francis, summed up the issues on his blog, discussing how the prizes favour men of European descent – excluding anyone who not a man or is not white from consideration. And I think there is more to add to this.

Due to stereotyping, we interpret the work of oppressed groups differently. For example, if you handed someone two identical CVs, with the same experience and qualifications, but one CV has a women’s name on it and the other has a man’s name on it, then you are more likely to hire the man.

OR, if you are handed two identical CVs, with the same experience and qualifications, but one CV has a name on it that is typically associated with a white person and the other has a name that is associated with a non-white person – then you are more likely to hire the person you perceive to be white.

In one study, just changing a letter in someone’s name would significantly increase their chance of being hired. With a man with the name ‘Jose’ being more likely to be hire if he used a CV in which he changed his name to ‘Joe’.

This is not necessarily a conscious act of discrimination (although in some cases it would be), but often it is result of unconscious absorption of societal stereotypes. This causes us to withhold unconscious biases, and this bias cause us to value the achievements of men and white people more than those from oppressed groups, despite identical achievements and experience.

I think unconscious bias has a lot to do with the appalling lack of women who have received recognition for their contribution to the scientific industry. And efforts should be made to make the panel aware of the biases they hold, to help prevent women from being overlooked, and break this cycle.


Forgotten women in science

With the approach of the release of ‘Hidden Figures’, a film illustrating the real-life story of the forgotten women involved in the moon landing, I wanted to help remember other forgotten women in STEM.

To help raise awareness for women who’s contributions to science have not been remembered, I wanted to recreate portraits of them; Because even though science is a big passion in my life, I also adore art. I picked three overlooked women in science, to help cement their work in our memories.

Katherine Johnson


The 2017 film release of ‘Hidden Figures’ captures the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who all made vital contributions to Project Mercury. Because of this, the first woman I chose to commemorate was Katherine Johnson.

She was an American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician – working at NASA, she calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths. Her work was crucial in Project Mercury, the first human space flight from the US, but has never been celebrated.
Rosalind Franklin


Rosalind Franklin made significant contributes to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Her contributions were famously overlooked as the nobel prize for this work was given to Watson and Crick, who are known as the discovers of DNA’s helical structure.

She was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, and presented her findings regarding DNA’s structure in a seminar in 1951. Watson was in the seminar audience and he findings reported influenced his work massively – however her work was never mentioned or recognised.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell


Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a Northern Irish astrophysicist, discovered the pulsar during her PhD. When she bought her findings to her supervisor he disregarded her discovery.

However, when the paper was published and it was acknowledged that the pulsar had actually been recorded and discovered, despite Jocelyn being the primary researcher, her PhD supervisor’s name was mentioned first on the research paper (indicating him as the primary researcher).


This is going to become a regular feature on my blog, so if you know any women in STEM you would like me to draw – please tweet me @AliceJaneGray.