Madeleine M. Kunin Headshot

Women Make Nobel History

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Call it payback time for former Harvard President Larry Summers (remember he opined that the reason women were rarely found amongst top scientists was because they didn't want to work that hard and that their brains might be different) but female scientists made history with this year's Nobel Prize awards.

For the first time ever, three women won top science prizes and we saw the first woman in Nobel history awarded the economics prize. Is this the result of years of more equal education opportunities, or the result of the Nobel committee's effort to tap into a different network that includes women?

No doubt, education played a big role. Girls are now just as good at math as the boys, something my generation unfortunately cannot claim. Math is a prerequisite to science.

We also have men in science who have mentored women, and these women have encouraged other women, according to Carol W. Greider who won the physiology prize with Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Jack W. Szostak.

In a New York Times conversation she explained there are several women in her field of telomeres partly because their work was fostered "early on by Joe Gall, and they got jobs around the country and they trained other women. I think there's a slight bias of women to work for women because there's still a slight cultural bias for men to help men."

No doubt Greider made Nobel history in another way -- she was the first person to pick up the phone early in the morning and hear that she won the prize while doing the laundry. Later that day at the Johns Hopkins University press conference she made sure her two teen-age children were in the picture. How many men with kids the same age would do that? she questioned.

Do women bring something different to science than men? There is a possibility that women would be more collaborative and that would change how science is done -- although experiments would continue to be done the same way, she said.

Elinor Ostrom was not only the first woman to win the economics Nobel Prize; she was the first political economist to take a practical, rather than a theoretical approach to her research. She has an inter-disciplinary approach, combining economics, political science, sociology and other fields. Her focus has been on how people share resources, such as forests and fisheries, without the dictates of government or private companies. She did extensive field work to reach the conclusion that people often made wise decisions as citizens and this work has huge implications for development in poor countries.

Is the ability to jump over discipline barriers a female trait? Do women, more than men, want real life solutions to problems? It would not be very scientific to reach that conclusion from one woman's resume, but it is interesting nevertheless to speculate that more women in these fields might lead to different kinds of research.

What we can say, without reservation, is that the country and the world, benefit when we can harvest the brilliance of the whole population -- not just the fifty percent that has historically been in the spotlight.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of
Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.Cross-posted on