Like many scientists who receive the coveted call informing them they’ve won the Nobel Prize, Donna Strickland was surprised. But there was an additional shocking element for Strickland: She learned that she was just the third woman in history to win the award in physics.
“Really? Is that all?” Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and an optics scientist who calls herself a “laser jock,” said at the Nobel press conference. “I thought there might have been more. Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there.”
The Nobel Prize, awarded each year to scientists in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, is considered the highest honor in science. But it’s also faced criticism, particularly in physics, for awarding the prize almost exclusively to men. While physics is a male-dominated field—in 2016, about 17 percent of physics doctoral degrees went to women, according to the American Institute of Physics—the Nobel’s rate of three women in 210 Laureates, about 1.5 percent, still falls far short.
When Rosalyn Yalow won the 1977 prize in physiology or medicine, she pointed to factors that prevent women from excelling in science and called for improvement.
“The failure of women to have reached positions of leadership has been due in large part to social and professional discrimination,” she said in a speech at the Nobel ceremony banquet. “The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us.”
The first woman to win the physics prize was Marie Curie, perhaps the most famous female scientist in history, who won in 1903. (Curie is also the only woman to win twice, and the only person to win in two different fields). Sixty years later, Maria Goeppert-Mayer won for her work on the atomic nucleus. And now, after another 55 years, Strickland has joined the pack.
“It’s wonderful,” said Michal Lipson, an electrical engineer at Columbia University who studies nanophotonics. “I hope that this is just the beginning, that they will really consider women’s work. There are a lot of fantastic women that have done pioneering work and they should definitely be considered.”
In between are physicists who many say were overlooked. Vera Rubin, who first discovered evidence for the existence of dark matter in the 1970s, passed away in 2016 without the Nobel that many physicists say she deserved. (Nobels cannot be awarded posthumously.) San Lan Wu has been involved in not one, but three, major discoveries—the charm quark, the gluon, and the Higgs boson—and has not been recognized.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars as a graduate student, but her (male) professor won the prize instead, due to long-standing tradition that excludes students from the prize. That informal policy is sometimes seen as another way the Nobels overlook important work done by women, who tend to leave the field younger than men. In fact, Strickland won for her first published paper, and the work became the basis for her doctoral thesis—which cited Goeppert-Mayer.
“I’m glad there were trailblazers like her and Marie Curie,” Strickland told the Nobel organization. “I think things have totally changed, so I think [the Prize] will come around and change.”