There is more to the fact that four women have been awarded Nobel Prizes this year than can be adequately acknowledged by a footnote in the history of the awards or a notch on a timeline of women's history. Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace, areas that are traditionally dominated by men.
This is true even for the peace prize. In his will, Alfred Nobel described this award as designated for "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
The United Nations has acknowledged the lack of women involved in conflict resolution and peace-building processes. And UNIFEM, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, has reported that women, on average, represent less than ten percent of peace negotiation teams.
Not only have women been historically under-represented in the areas that are recognized by the awards, but they have also been under-represented among the nominating bodies. The Nobel Committee invites university professors, scientists, previous Nobel Laureates, and members of parliamentary assemblies to submit candidates for the prizes. These areas too, are typically dominated by men.
The gender imbalances in both the fields recognized and among the submitting bodies, shed light on the significance of four women receiving the award in a single year. Previously three women won in a single year, in 2004.
Certainly the reason for the four awards rests solely on the accomplishments of the recipients, regardless of sex.
- Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is the Morris Herztein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California. Dr. Carol Greider is the Daniel Nathans Professor & Director Molecular Biology & Genetics, Johns Hopkins University. Together with Dr. Jack Szostak, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, they have made major breakthroughs in cancer research.
- Professor Ada Yonath is The Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology and Director of The Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly. She, along with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A Steitz, were recognized for "studies of the structure and function of the ribosome," work that will impact the development of antibiotics.
- Herta Muller, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has amassed an impressive, moving, body of work.
However, women's accomplishments have gone unnoticed in the past. So it is worth contemplating what, if anything, has changed resulting in a better representation of women among the Laureates. Is it merely a numbers game --more women entering science, government and higher education means more women nominees? Does it reflect a shift in attitudes – scientists, world leaders and important writers are no longer viewed as traditional male-only roles? And is it an indicator of future opportunities and gender parity for women worldwide? Either way, it's progress.