Nobel Award Ceremony. Credits: The Nobel Prize website.

More Than Half A Century Since a Woman Won a Physics Nobel Prize.

A Data-Driven Analysis on the Lack of Female Nobel Prize Winners

As soon as the 2015 Nobel prizes were announced, here at Silk we decided to dig into the data on all the winners published. For that we turned to Wikipedia and the Nobel Prize Website. This year very few women won Nobels so we decided to analyze gender statistics for the prizes over time. We knew it would be male dominated. But the extent to which this was true surprised us. Less than 6% of the 874 (human) laureates are women. And thank God for Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes. She is counted twice.

If you thought that this was bad already, then read on. The numbers reveal also a much more dire situations in fields like Chemistry and Physics. You can follow our Silk data story covering the Nobels for more updates.

Note on terminology. Prize Share: the actual portion of a Nobel medal awarded to a laureate. For example, in 1963, three scientists were awarded a Nobel Physics Prize. Two men and one women. This means that men had a 66% price share, and women a 33%. Throughout the text, we give statistics on the laureates’ count and sometimes on prize shares. We always specify which is counted, so pay attention to this different angles. Also, note that when calculating percentages of male and female laureates, we excluded from the total collective prizes given to NGOs or other organizations (like the UN).


Only 5.7% of all the Nobel laureates have been women

The Nobel Prize has been awarded since 1901. Yet, after more than a century of awards, men dominate the Nobels count to a surprising degree. Women’s share of the prizes has been steadily increasing but the Nobels are very clearly a boys club even 115 years later. Even more surprising the best years for women a century ago were not much worse than the best years for women, on average, today.

Data from http://nobels-database.silk.co/

2015, a relatively good year for women laureates: A third of the prize share went to female laureates

The year average for 1901–2015 is 5% women laureates per Nobel Ceremony. Many editions had a higher count, even in the early years. At the 5th Nobel edition, in 1905, women made up an astonishing 20% of all the Nobel winners. The problem is that this number fluctuated wildly each edition. The count dropped back to 0% already the next year in 1906.

There have also been long gaps without a single woman in the winners’ list. Nobel prizes were 100% male-dominated for 13 years between 1912 and 1925, and then again between 1948 and 1962. To date, 2009 was the best year for women laureates: almost 40% were women, taking home 42% of the prize share. Alas, it was only a lucky coincidence rather than the beginning of a structural change. The next year, the percentage again dropped to zero.

For the first time ever, we are seeing a string of consecutive increases. This year, 2015, marked the first time that the share of women laureates has grown for three years in a row.

Data from http://nobels-database.silk.co/

When women win, it’s mostly for Peace and Literature

Of the only 46 Nobels awarded to at least one female laureate, more than 60% of the prizes were for Peace or Literature. There’s been only one woman among the Economics laureates, and only four female Nobel-winning physicists.

Only four of the 172 Chemistry laureates (sharing 107 Nobel prizes) went to women. Only two women have taken the full prize share and did not split the Nobel medal with a man. Those were Marie Curie in 1911 and Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964.

In Physics, there have been only 2 women laureates in this field. They were Marie Curie (again) in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, more than half a century ago. Both shared the medal with male physicists. This means that, in total, women have garnered only 0.46% of the total prize share for the Physics field.

Number of Prizes with at Least One Female Winner

Data from http://nobels-database.silk.co/

Women Prize Share (%) and Men Prize Share (%) per Award Category

Data from http://nobels-database.silk.co/

47 countries (out of 76) never had a home-born female laureate

Countries with No Women Nobel Laureate

Data from http://nobels.silk.co. Note: We considered the country of birth of each laureate.

Some of the 47 countries have had few or no Nobel laureates. For countries that have won five Nobels or greater but lack a female laureate, some are surprising, such as socially liberal countries like Belgium, The Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Click on the chart to access the interactive version and explore other variables. Data from http://nobels.silk.co/

The good news: Some countries have only won one Nobel prize..and it went to a woman.

This includes Kenya, Yemen, Macedonia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Iran and Liberia also have a women-only Nobel squad to represent them as birth countries. (Note: Iran’s home-born Nobel is Doris Lessing, who actually lived in the UK at the time of the award and represents a UK Nobel winner. Mother Teresa, born in Macedonia, counts as a Nobel for both Macedonia and India)

Percentage of Female Nobel Laureates Born in Each Country (out of all the Country-Born Laureates)

Data from http://nobels.silk.co/
Click on the chart to access the interactive version and explore other variables. Data from http://nobels.silk.co/

If you enjoyed this article, have a look at our Silk. There you’ll find other data visualizations and articles on:

  • Interactive gallery of all Female Nobels
  • Age of Nobel Winners: Laureates are receiving a Nobel prizes, on average, at an increasingly later age than in the past. And 2015 now joins 1966 as the year with the highest average age of the Nobel winners so far: 73.
  • Age and Award Category: Physics laureates have the youngest average age, fifty-five.At the opposite end, the average age of Economists Nobel winners is 68.
  • Interactive map of all countries represented by a Nobel winner
  • Some places are more likely than others to give birth to a Nobel laureate
  • Top Universities: Where to Study to Win a Nobel. Most Nobel winners attended US universities. Yet none of the top seven universities attended by Literature laureates is in the U.S.
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