Should the Nobel Prize Have Gender or Ethnicity Quotas?

The Nobel Prizes were announced last week. Winning one is widely thought to be the “end all, be all” of academic achievement. Nothing is more impressive than a Nobel. I have no chance of winning a Nobel prize because, alas, they don’t offer one in the field of management. But I still hold out hope that someday I will win an Ig Nobel prize. My dad would be so proud.

From 1901 to 2021, there have been a total of 975 Nobel laureates. Winners have made truly ground-breaking discoveries in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, and economics, or substantive contributions to world peace for the Nobel peace prize. But among the 975 Nobel prizes, only 59 have gone to women, amounting to around six percent of the total.

Various explanations have been put forward to explain this under-representation. Some have argued that innate sex differences account for it, e.g., that women are more interested in “people” and men are more interested in “things,” with the latter ability being more conducive to winning a scientific prize. Others point to sociological and structural reasons, such as the socialization of young girls away from scientific pursuits.

Whatever the reason, there have been calls for the Nobel prize to introduce gender quotas, along side ethnicity quotas. Last week, Goran Hansson, the head of the academy that awards the Nobel prize, rejected the idea of any form of quotas. He maintains that the Nobel prize should be awarded solely on the basis of merit.

No one can argue that barriers to learning (and doing) science should be torn down for anyone wishing to excel in that area. I am, and always will be, a strong advocate of equality of opportunity, especially in the early years of life. When I look at my daughter, I see a future Nobel prize winner and I will literally move mountains to ensure that she can pursue a career in science if she chooses to do so.

But to introduce a gendered equality of outcome in the awarding of Nobel prizes would be (paradoxically) highly exclusionary. Let me explain. If we were to introduce a gender quota in awards, why should that be to the exclusion of any other type of quota aimed at remedying under-representation? We could, of course, also introduce an ethnicity quota, but that would be to the exclusion of a myriad of other disadvantaged groups. How about we add a social class quota? Don’t scientists from working class backgrounds deserve recognition given the additional obstacles they’ve faced? What about scientists with disability (both mental and physical)? And why wouldn’t religion also be subject to a quota? Incidentally, this would severely disadvantage Jews, whom constitute only 0.20% of the world’s population, but have won 170 Nobel prizes (and 41% of all Nobel prizes in Economics).

There is an infinite number of ways in which an individual can be disadvantaged: were you raised in an orphanage? Were you physically or sexually abused as a child? Did you go to public or private school? Did you grow up in Mexico or the United States? The questions can go on ad infinitum. But whom among us has the power, wisdom, and right to decide which disadvantaged groups should be subject to quotas and which shouldn’t?

You can see where the logic takes us. A quota system, by definition, excludes some groups at the expense of others, that is, unless you want to award to Nobel prize to everyone, and that would obviously defeat the purpose.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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