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When will we finally see another woman win a Nobel Prize in economics?

It’s that time of the year again: Nobel prize week. With nearly all prizes across the different fields now awarded (we are still waiting for the Nobel in Literature), there is one unfortunately not so surprising characteristic all winners have in common. Pundits and betting markets considered winners Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström among the top favourites to walk away with the 2016 Nobel Prize in economics. Something they could be a lot more certain about was that the ultimate winner was probably not going to be a woman.

Though the Nobel prize in economics has seen 76 individual winners since its inception in 1969, it has been awarded to a woman only once. Elinor Ostrom, who received the prize in 2009 for her groundbreaking work on the Commons, was the first, and so far the last, woman to win the economics Nobel. Though the focus of this blog is gender diversity, it is important to note that people of colour haven’t fared much better: only two non-white economists have ever won the Riksbank’s award: Arthur Lewis in 1979 and Amartya Sen in 1998.  

Elinor Ostrom who received the prize in 2009 for her groundbreaking work on the Commons, was the first, and so far the last, woman to win the economics Nobel. 

The economics prize isn’t the only Nobel prize to exhibit such a lack of diversity. Only two women have won the Nobel prize in physics, the last one over 50 years ago went to Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). Marie Curie won the other, in 1903. The Chemistry Nobel prize has been awarded to 175 individuals, just four of whom were women (one of the four again Marie Curie). The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was won by a woman twelve times- though a better number, still less than 6 percent of the total number of laureates. The Peace and Literature prizes, winners of which of course come from a much more varied set of backgrounds than just elite academia, unsurprisingly also see a more diverse range of recipients.    

Women in science

The underrepresentation of women among Nobel prize recipients is used by some to push the agenda that women are somehow less predisposed to excel at science. The fact that not more women have won Nobel Prizes simply confirms there weren’t any qualified enough. This is of course not true. Research has shown that the relevant neurological differences between men and women are certainly not sufficiently large enough to explain away this gender gap- especially so when we think about this issue in terms of deviations from the norm rather than averages. Women may on average be shorter than men, but that does not mean that each individual woman is shorter than each individual man. Similarly, at the very extreme of the bell curve of scientific aptitude, the place where Nobel prize winners roam, we find plenty of highly capable women and men.

The long list of women whose crucial contributions to scientific breakthroughs were snubbed by the Nobel committee, while their male colleagues went home with the highest of honours- from Jocelyn Bell Burnell to the Manhattan Project’s Chien-Shiung Wu to Rosalind Franklin, should go a long way in proving there is instead no insignificant amount of bias at play here.

The problem of underrepresentation of women in academia- particularly in the upper echelons of disciplines- is as we know far more widespread than just the Nobel.

It would be unfair to single out the Nobel prize committee as the sole bad guy: the problem of underrepresentation of women in academia - particularly in the upper echelons of disciplines - is as we know far more widespread. And this is a problem. Beyond reasons of basic social justice, there are a host of reasons why it is important that women and people of colour are given a larger voice in scientific debates and that the barriers preventing them to rise to the top be broken down. By marginalising (both deliberately and less consciously) such a large group of people we are losing out on a lot of potential brain power.

More diversity also brings a more diverse way of thinking - bringing in different perspectives creates an environment for more creative and novel ways of approaching issues. We see that research on topics that had traditionally been understudied - from the gender pay in economics to diseases that disproportionately affect minorities - has benefited greatly from an increased inclusivity in academia. When we think about responsible innovation (see Nesta’s and UCL’s upcoming event series on Responsible Research and Innovation), it is therefore of utmost importance to make inclusivity a key component of this debate.

Why haven’t we seen another woman win the economics prize?

Reuters publishes an annual list of likely contenders for the Nobel prizes in each field, mostly based on how often academics' work was cited. Citations appear to be a good predictor of Nobel success: in the last 14 years, 39 of the researchers Reuters shortlisted to win went on to win the prize. This year, its longlist of 66 predicted names (which featured both Holmstrom and Hart) for the Nobel prize in economics counted just one woman, Anne Krueger, the highly influential former World Bank chief economist best known for coining the term ‘rent-seeking’. 

Women have a harder time getting published, and subsequently getting the same kind of attention for their research as men do. Economist Justin Wolfers described an interesting manifestation of this phenomenon in an article in the New York Times last year, using the example of economic ‘power couples’ publishing papers together (famous economists seem to couple up surprisingly often: Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen is married to Nobel prize-winning economist George Akerlof, former chair of the US’ Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer and her husband Berkeley professor David Romer, etc.). He took note that the husband tends to get most of the credit and attention for these co-authored papers, even when the wife was the first author.

Take last year’s groundbreaking research on the falling life expectancy of middle class white Americans for example. Co-authored by Princeton professor Anne Case and her husband Angus Deaton (who won the economics Nobel in 2015) the paper often gets attributed to Deaton alone, even though Case was the primary author of the work. This kind of bias is hard to combat, but with more and more women entering the field of economics and moving into senior roles will hopefully become less pronounced.

Unconscious bias does not just affect women, but also economists from lesser known universities. Previous winners of the Nobel prize in economics received their college degrees and PhDs from a surprisingly small number of academic institutions, with the list dominated by predominantly US top universities like the University of Chicago, MIT and Harvard. Even the vast majority of the non-American laureates completed at least some of their education at one of these institutions. Taking note of the fact that many of these schools have not been graduating women for that long a time, the gender gap is perhaps a bit more understandable.  

Harvard college only began to admit women in in 1979, Columbia not until 1981. The average age economists win their Nobel prize is 67 and has been going up in recent years- most of these people today would have completed their PhDs in the 1960s and 70s, a time when these opportunities were not open to women in the same way they are now. With the years, there will be an ever larger pool of top female economists to tap in to*, a group harder and harder to overlook for the Nobel committee.  

A second example that might give us some hope for the future is the John Bates Clark medal, a prize awarded to the best US-based economist under the age of forty, and perhaps the best predictor of future Nobel success. Eleven of the first seventeen recipients went on to win the Nobel prize in economics. Talented female economists, long ignored also by the John Bates Clark selection committee, have in recent years made some headway, winning three* of the last nine awards. But with all three of the winners still in their forties, we may have to have some patience.    

* Important to point out that there is already a long list of female economists whose work would most definitely merit a Nobel prize.

* Susan Athey (Stanford), Esther Duflo (MIT), Amy Finkelstein (MIT)

Image credit: Adam Baker via Flickr (CC-bySA-2.0)


Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Data Scientist

Katja is a data scientist in the technology futures and explorations teams at Nesta. Her work focuses on using novel data sources and techniques to identify and analyse emerging tech...

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