Forget Bob Dylan - Why Did No Women Win Nobel Prizes This Year?

19/10/2016 16:44
Mark and Colleen Hayward via Getty Images

By now, you've probably heard the news that acclaimed American folk musician Bob Dylan was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Literature.

Since the announcement was made last Thursday, media outlets around the world have rushed to defend or condemn this decision, debating endlessly about the validity of music as a form of literature. But while his somewhat controversial win is dominating the headlines, this ongoing discussion of his merits is masking the real issue at hand - not a single woman was awarded a prize this year. What does this say about how female achievements are being marginalised in these fields?

Established in 1901 at the behest of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prizes recognise excellence in the fields of Chemistry, Literature, Physics, Peace, Medicine and Economics. Considered to be some of the most renowned awards in these fields, they come with a significant financial reward as well as a noted level of prestige, putting the winner in the same elite pool as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and now, Bob Dylan.

However, despite the oft-referenced presence of Curie, Mother Theresa and more recently Malala Yousafzai in this hallowed group, Nobel Prizes are undeniably a boy's club. Statistics on female winners make for a depressing read - with just 48 women in over a century compared to 832 men, 94% of Nobel Prize winners are male. Even in Literature, a field expected to be slightly more favourable to women than science, just 14 women have been awarded the prize since 1901.

The Nobel Foundation is not ashamed of this. They acknowledge it as if it were just another fact, alongside lists of posthumous prizes and multiple Nobel Laureates. They boast on Twitter about the fourteen women of Literature, as if it were an achievement, as if it were a point of pride. When the lack of female presence among Nobel winners is brought up, as with any public prize, the usual arguments are proposed - that the winners were the strongest in their fields. That merit has no gender. That as always, the best man won.

But we cannot lay all the blame for this on the Nobel Foundation. After all, how can women even be nominated (by the five men, one woman panel) when they're held back from entering the race in the first place?

Since the days of George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans), it's been proven time again that books written by women are far less likely to be chosen by publishers, never mind reviewed once they are released. In a survey of four major publishers in 2011, only 39% were female - while the noted publishers of Tom Wolfe, T.S Eliot and Jack Kerouac represented just 23 women that year compared to 106 men. As for critics, a study published in the same year showed that 76% of reviews in the of New York Review of Books were for male authors.

There is a deep bias at work here, stemming from the belief that men are more popular and capable writers than their female counterparts. Putting any gender genre leanings aside, the exact same manuscript will be received more favourably under a male name than a female name - in the case of writer Catherine Nichols, she found herself considered 'eight and a half times better at writing' when pitching her book to agents under the name of George. This treatment is so endemic that there's an entire organisation dedicated to tracking the woeful representation of women in literature.

But present these undeniable facts to disbelievers, and they'll suggest a woman who has succeeded against the odds. "Look at JK Rowling!" they cry. "Look at Elena Ferrante!". Rowling, who used genderless initials at the urging of her publishers so that young boys were more likely to read her books. Ferrante, who was recently forcefully unmasked by a investigative journalist who could not accept her right to anonymity - or that a woman wrote the Neapolitan Novels.

In scientific fields, the odds for success are even slimmer. While more women are pursuing scientific fields in higher education than ever before, outnumbering men graduating with science and engineering-related bachelors degrees, the field is still deeply biased. A 2012 study found that a stark gender disparity within academic science meant men were far more likely to be treated favourably than their female counterparts with the same assets and qualifications. Women are also significantly less likely to be chosen for training or employment. In the USA, nearly 20% of PHD's in Physics are now awarded to women, compared to less than 5% in 1965 - two years after the last woman won a Nobel Prize in Physics. Do we even need to mention Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt, an admitted chauvinist who believes scientific labs should be segregated by gender to stop troublesome girls crying and causing romantic distractions?

The Nobel Foundation is not wholly responsible for the lack of female winners in science and literature, but it's clear that by marginalising female candidates they are reinforcing male dominance in these fields. Sexism in these areas needs to be addressed, and the Nobel Foundation has the power to improve this by treating women as equal players. But for now, the message to women is clear - the best man always wins.