A Female Economics Laureate: Why Only Now?

A Female Economics Laureate: Why Only Now?

A Female Economics Laureate: Why Only Now?

The first female winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics serves as both a landmark and an alarming reflection of the limited role of women in the physical sciences.


On October 12 Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. It’s a landmark, yes, but one that lags limply behind its counterparts.

Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize a full 106 years ago. Her 1903 award came in physics, for her discovery of radioactivity. Bertha von Suttner became the first woman to win the Peace Prize in 1905. Four years later, Selma Lagerloef became the first female winner for literature. Not one to rest on her laureate, Curie also became the first female chemistry winner in 1911. It took several more decades for a woman garner the award for medicine–but that achievement came at long last in 1947, from Gerty Theresa Cori.

Why, then, is it 2009 and we are only now seeing the first female winner in economics? Granted, overall the prizes remain heavily skewed in favor of men: 763 to 40, to be exact. That’s nineteen men for every female laureate. But the heretofore 0 percent female success rate in economics seems especially grim.

One reason is that the prize for economics has only existed since 1968 (the others were first awarded in 1901). But more compelling is the continuing under-representation of women in the field of economics. In the 2003-04 academic year, women accounted for only 34 percent of first-year PhD candidates in economics. This is well below many other fields of advanced study, where the new millennium has meant that the majority of PhDs awarded in the humanities, education, life sciences and social sciences have gone to women.

The physical sciences and economics, though, are a different story. Thirty-four percent of chemistry PhDs went to women in 2005, marginally better than economics. Women have fared even poorer in infiltrating the field of physics: only 20 percent of its first-year PhD candidates were women in 2006. These numbers have actually improved drastically since the 1960s, when only 4 percent of physical science PhDs went to women.

Once women receive economics PhDs, they seem to have more trouble climbing the academic ladder than their male counterparts. While almost a third of economics PhDs go to women, in 2004 only 26.3 percent of assistant economics professors were women, 21.2 percent of associate economics professors and 8.4 percent of full economics professors. Some of this disparity has been attributed to the plodding pace of change in the field, while some of it seems to be a result of failure to change altogether.

The Nobel Prizes correspond to the dismal statistics: four female chemistry laureates and two in physics (half of these six went to a Curie). This is better than the economics field but is in no way safe from charges of a fluke. Were it not for Marie Curie and her daughter, who won for chemistry in 1935, the number of awards per fifty years would not really be any different in these fields than it is in economics.

It is worth pointing out that the world of economics could not even find one of its own to raise up to the coveted prize: Elinor Ostrom is a professor of political science at Indiana University. Not that this made her path to the top any smoother. In 1998 only 39 percent of political science PhDs went to women.

If anything, Ostrom’s win serves to illuminate the continuing shortcomings of economics, physics and chemistry, and other fields like them, rather than how far they have come.

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