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It’s a Historic Year for Women Winning the Nobel Prize (But Work Still Needs to Be Done)

In the nearly 120 years that the Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded, there have been hundreds of prizes given out; a mere 58 of those have gone to women. 

This year, four women — Louise Glück, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer A. Doudna, and Andrea M. Ghez — took home awards for literature, chemistry, and physics. This makes 2020 the second-best year for female winners. (In 2009, five women took home awards.)

Glück was honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature "for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal." Charpentier and Doudna were honored with a joint prize in Chemistry for “the development of a method for genome editing.” Ghez was honored with a prize in Physics for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy.”

Ghez, who won her prize alongside partners Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel, made history by becoming only the fourth woman to win a Nobel physics prize. Charpentier and Doudna are the first two female scientists to jointly win the Chemistry prize sans a male collaborator. They’re only the sixth and seventh women ever to win in that category.

With women winning a mere 6 percent in Nobel Prize history, there’s still much to be done in considering more women and other diverse candidates as potential Nobel Laureates. As per CNN, the number of Black winners in the history of the prizes is less than 2 percent.

Patricia Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University and writer on the topic of racial diversity in higher education and popular culture, told the network that she thinks part of the problem is “who is nominating, and who's in the room."

"I also think part of the challenge is not understanding or appreciating the impact of the work of Black, African, people of African descent — the impact of their work globally,” she explained.

Notably, the Nobel Foundation restricts disclosure of information about the nominations for 50 years so it’s not clear how expansive the pool of nominees are or where exactly they're looking for candidates. That said, Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Göran K. Hansson wrote in Nature last year that the organization is concerned "about the shortage of women and of scientists from outside Europe and North America among Nobel Laureates."

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