Patriarchy skews Nobel PrizeSARAH 0% female success rate in the field of economics seems especially grim

2009-10-24 13:44

ON OCTOBER 12 Elinor Ostrom ­became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. It is a landmark, yes – but one that lags limply behind its counterparts.

Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize a full 106 years ago. Her 1903 award came in physics for her discovery of radioactivity. Bertha von Suttner became the first woman to win the Peace Prize in 1905. Four years later Selma Lagerloef became the first female winner for literature. Not one to rest on her laureate, Curie also became the first female chemistry winner in 1911. It took many more decades for a woman to garner the award for medicine – but that achievement came at long last in 1947, by Gerty Theresa Cori.

Why, then, is it 2009 and we are only now seeing the first ­female winner in economics? Granted, overall the prizes ­remain heavily skewed in ­favour of men: 763 to 40, to be exact. That’s 19 men for every female laureate.

One reason is that the prize for economics has only existed since 1968 (the others were first awarded in 1901). But more compelling is the continuing under-representation of women in the field of economics. In the 2003/04 academic year women accounted for only 34% of first-year PhD candidates in economics. This is well below many other fields of advanced study, where the new millennium has meant that the majority of PhDs awarded in the ­humanities, education, life ­sciences and social sciences have gone to women.

The physical sciences and economics are a different story though. About 34% of chemi­stry PhDs went to women in 2005; marginally better than economics. Women fared even more poorly in infiltrating the field of physics, where in 2006 only 20% of first-year PhD candidates were women. These numbers actually improved drastically since the 1960s, when only 4% of physical ­science PhDs went to women.

Once women receive economics PhDs they seem to have more trouble climbing the academic ladder than their male counterparts. While ­almost a third of economics ­PhDs go to women, in 2004 only 26.3% of assistant economics professors, 21.2% of ­associate economics professors and 8.4% of full economics professors were women.

The Nobel Prizes correspond to the dismal statistics: four ­female chemistry laureates and two in physics (half of the six went to a Curie). This is better than the economics field, but it is in no way safe from charges of a fluke. Were it not for Marie Curie and her daughter, who won for chemistry in 1935, the number of awards per 50 years would not really be any different in these fields than it is in economics.

It is worth pointing out that the world of economics could not even find one of its own to raise up to the coveted prize: Elinor Ostrom is a professor of political science at Indiana University. Not that this made her path to the top any smoother. In 1998 only 39% of political science PhDs went to women.

If anything, Ostrom’s win serves to illuminate the continuing shortcomings of economics, physics and chemistry – and other fields like them – rather than how far they have come. – The Nation

)?Stodola is a freelance writer based in New York

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