It is good to know three women won Nobel prizes this year.
Donna Strickland, a Canadian, was honored with the prize for physics, along with two men, for devising a method of generating high-density, ultra-short optical pulses.
Frances Arnold, an American, was also honored with two men in the chemistry category for explaining the directed evolution of enzymes.
And Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman raised in Iraq, shared the prize for peace with a Congolese doctor for bringing the world’s attention to the vicious and vile fact of how mass rape is used as a “weapon of war” – specifically by the Islamic State and in the Congo but also in so many other countries.
After reading about those winning women, I was curious as to how many women won the Nobel Prize in its 117-year history. The answer, which didn’t surprise me at all, is about 50 women winners and about 850 men. It’s a sad commentary on the systemic sexism of the 20th century.
That lopsided number sparked a memory from the mid-1960s when Ellen, a high-school classmate, popped over to my house one afternoon. She was visibly distressed.
She told me she had talked that day with a school counselor about her future, about what she wanted to do for a career. She told him she planned to be a doctor. The counselor, she said, kind of chuckled and then told her to choose something more “realistic,” suggesting other careers more suitable for women – school teacher, bookkeeper, secretarial, nursing.
“What a jerk!” I said. “You should have told him to stick it.”
“Believe me, that’s what I felt like telling him!” she said.
Well, is it any wonder there have been only 50 women winners in more than a century of Nobel prizes? I’m certain that caveman counselor’s brand of “advice” was given to women all through the the past century by paternalistic men: Do women’s work, stay in your place, don’t try to compete in a man’s world; choose something that’s not quite so intellectual. In fact, why not consider marrying a nice man, being a housewife and having lots of babies?
Think of all the brains, talents and skills that went to waste because of lame-brain advice like that. And the dumb advice was exacerbated by another factor – the false assumption that boys had a natural affinity for math and science whereas girls were best suited for nurturing roles (thus, pushed toward home economics and the arts).
Fortunately, far as I know, that’s changed. Last I heard, girls are scoring high on math and science tests, in many cases besting the boys.
Some day, not too many years from now, there will be many more women who win Nobel prizes in all categories, including the various sciences. You’ll know real change has been achieved when instead of a woman sharing the prize with two men, as in this year’s winners in physics and chemistry, there will be two women sharing the prize with one man or even a trio of women winners.
In this dangerous world, we need all the brains and talents that can be mustered. It’s long overdue, but it’s gratifying to know that women are finally getting the chances – and awards – they so richly deserve.
And I’m glad to add a “happy ending” to this column: Ellen didn’t listen to the caveman counselor; she became a doctor.