100 Years After Marie Curie Set Nobel Record, Why So Few Women in Science?

Marie Skłodowska-Curie, two-time Nobel Laureate, challenged scientific theories and generally accepted beliefs about women’s abilities, blazing a trail for generations of women scientists and professionals to come. But for women in science today, there is still much more trail that needs blazing.

One hundred years ago, on December 10, 1911, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences presented the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Skłodowska-Curie for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, making Madame Curie the first–and still the only–person to have won the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields. Among the most accomplished scientists in history, Skłodowska-Curie developed a theory of radioactivity, founded two world-renowned medical research centers, revolutionized scientific understanding of chemistry and physics and laid the groundwork for the use of radiation to fight cancer and other diseases

A self-made woman and passionate scholar, Skłodowska-Curie also broke down barriers in a climate that was often hostile to women scientists. She worked her way through school and dedicated herself to her research to emerge as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first woman to earn a doctorate in France, the Sorbonne’s first woman professor, and the first woman enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris “for her own merits.” But despite her unimpeachable scientific record, the men of the French Academy of Sciences never elected her a member. Of her 1911 application, the physicist Emile Amagat plainly suggested, “women cannot be part of the Institute of France.” (Indeed, women would not be part of the French Academy until 1962, when Skłodowska-Curie’s former student, Marguerite Perey, was inducted.)

Women scientists continue to be underrepresented in today’s American science “academy.” Even as more and more American women enter fields that had been historically dominated by men such as business, medicine and law, there are strikingly few women in the “STEM” professions (science, technology, engineering and math). A 2010 report [PDF] by the American Association of University Women and the National Science Foundation, “Why So Few?,” synthesized decades of research to conclude that bias and stereotypes still impede the progress of many female scientists and mathematicians from grade school through academia.The report also suggests that social and learning environments–that is, nurture rather than nature–dramatically shape girls’ interests and achievements in science and math. (Lawrence Summers, take note.)

On the 100th anniversary of Marie Skłodowska-Curie’s record-setting second Nobel Prize, no women are among the nine Nobel Laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics. (On a positive note, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman will share the Peace Prize for their work on behalf of women and women’s rights.) Skłodowska-Curie remains one of only two women to have been awarded the Prize in Physics and one of four to have earned the Prize in Chemistry. Another of the Chemistry prizes was won by her daughter, Iréne Joliot-Curie.

One hopes that learning institutions will follow the recommendations of “Why So Few?” Women scientists need institutional and cultural support as they tread in Marie Skłodowska-Curie’s giant footsteps and blaze their own new trails.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons


  1. But the Peace Prize award to these three women is not unambiguously positive. There’s a sense in which they downgrade the award when giving it to women, by spreading it thin. Female laureates at bargain basement prices:

    “This year’s Nobel Peace Prize award makes it clear that the current Peace Prize Committee has a serious problem with women. In fact, they have two.

    Their problems have nothing to do with the choice of laureates; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakel Karman are all inspirational winners with exceptional accomplishments.

    But the way the award was made this year exposes two uncomfortable realities: (1) The men who speak on behalf of the committee are ambivalent about the importance of making the award to women, and (2) the consequence of dividing the prize three ways in practice diminishes the value of each woman’s contribution.”

    Read the rest at: The Nobel Peace Prize’s problem with women http://wp.me/p1xS1Q-aD

  2. You forgot to mention that Marie Curie died from radiation poisoning, literally giving her life for her work.

    Many women who have made significant contributions to science -Candace Pert, who was in large part responsible for the discovery of opiate receptors, a finding that has had huge significance in the areas of pharmacology and pschoneuroimmunolgy, (PNI) comes immediately to mind-have usually been belittled and/or ostracized by their male counterparts until they eventually left the field or chose less cutting-edge areas of study.

    I personally experienced the influence of the “Good old boy” network at Stanford University Medical Center where, when practicing as an oncology nurse, I witnessed women physicians routinely being treated as “second class scientists” and their research ignored or belittled in favor of that of their male counterparts. It is a rare individual who can stand up to that kind of day-to-day assault on her person-hood and her work while simultaneously running a busy clinical practice and research lab. Most of them eventually abandoned their research and went into private practice as a result, at great loss to the profession.

    When it comes to medicine and science, misogyny is still very much alive and well and living at a research facility near you.

  3. I think this comic is very appropriate. http://xkcd.com/896/

  4. Thanks for your comment, Curt. You raise an interesting point and I enjoyed reading your thought-provoking piece.

  5. There is definitely a lot of bias against women in science and math in schools. I was really into science in grade school and middle school and there was rarely a time when I didn’t hear “girls can’t do science.” or something like that. luckily, my family and science teachers (some women, some very nice men) were supportive.

    I really think that this attitude is a big part of the problem. if all you hear is that you can’t do it, will you even try?

  6. Elle Deyoung says:

    Here is my personal answer to that question:

    When I was in grade 2, I wanted to be a scientist. That was my dream. But through my years of school (I’m in grade 11 now) I have been belittled by my science teachers and teachers in general, humiliated and faced sexism I first thought was only opinions of some (as in a minority) educators until I realized that gender stereotypes come from the very core of the education system. School is an institution that teaches mindless obedience, and crushes the natural curiosity that interests children in science. Schools need to be healthy, safe environment that treats both genders equally, a place where you do not face sexual harassment regularly. I have actually had teachers defend the boys are better at math and science bullshit. Seriously.

    Not to mention I have a non verbal learning disability and despite having a diagnosis am getting no help with it at all because no adult at my school knows how to deal with it! I am already super far behind, I have failed math and science over and over and I fear I will never graduate. I face constant bullying at school and feel both unsafe and suicidal. When I have to wake up for school in the morning I wish I was dead. It makes me feel hopeless and depressed. I feel like I will never graduate and I want to drop out despite that I am intelligent and want to learn. I cant stand being bullying even by these adults I am supposed to trust! Whenever I ask for help I am made to feel greedy because they are doing their “best” and it isnt enough for me as if I ask too much when all I ask for is for an equal chance as my peers. Having a learning disability I found out the hard way, gets you a lot of discrimination. I thought people at school would be trained to help me but they are really, truly not. So called “professionals” think my disability has to do with intelligence and lower iq when nothing could be further from the truth. I hate to be a statistic but I am trying very best and getting 20% in science and then being told I am lazy and not trying at all when really I look at the sheet and its like its written in another language and I do not understand at all. Once I stayed in for the whole hr of lunch and only got half a sheet done with the teachers help and half of that was wrong! People at school that are supposed to be helping me tell me if only I hired a tutor my mark would be fine well despite the majority at my school are white upper middle class my family eats from the food bank there is no way possible my family could afford a tutor. They offer no alternatives, all they do is blame my (non existanant) stupidity and when I inquire about IPP they literally tell me I am not “stupid” enough. WTF? I despise the public education system of Canada and I will NEVER, EVER put my kids through it if I bring children into this world. It is a corrupt government led institution to crush individuality and spirit and sometimes it even costs kids their lives such as in Nova Scotia where I live because despite the alarming number of teen suicides from bullying, bullying is as big a joke to them as ever! The way we educate the young needs to change and before we can live in a more fair world with brilliant women scientists just as recognized as men. I think the way kids are treated in schools is all interconnected to the larger issue at hand here.

    • Elle Deyoung says:

      Not to mention with the bland science curriculum Ive always suffered/experienced we rarely, actually scratch rarely that means we do learn about them a little, we NEVER learn about female scientists and I would never have known of the great anniversary of this awesome woman’s accomplishment today from science class.

      • Elle Deyoung says:

        You know I was just thinking, in a way all politicians are murders, especially the more powerful decision making ones like prime ministers and presidents, because they make decisions that effect so many even silenced minorities such as the Aboriginals and just generally groups that are not so often heard. Not to say that Aboriginals aren’t able to speak for themselves, they are and they do, but they are a minority and there’s the big vocal and screaming voice of the majority.
        The prime minister decides to defund battered women’s shelters (F you Harper), it will DIRECTLY impact the women who need it… it is so important to have compassionate leaders. Sometimes I cannot separate democracy from dictatorship.

  7. Barbara Mor says:

    And where would all these smart boys & corporate profiteers be without women’s
    Neolithic domestication of grain, emergent from even earlier exploration & experimentation with plant-life, i.e. the invention of Agriculture, Alchemy, Chemistry, Pharmaceuticals via anonymous female research into medicinal, toxic &
    hallucinatory plant properties (not to mention the Cooking of Food: voila, the baking of bread & cookies!!) I could go on…pottery, i.e. ceramic sciences; textiles, weaving, clothing, i.e. the garment & fashion industries. Hypatia’s invention of the Astrolabe. Rosalind Franklin’s critical work in the discovery of the DNA helix structure. Ada Lovelace Byron & Dr. Grace Murray Hopper in the pioneering of computer technology. I could go on; but I have to go put my head in a burqa or shave my devilish hair off or don my nun’s habit of submissive silence & then go bang my head against an impervious (apparently) wall asking forgiveness for being born a dumb female….what kind of cookies d’ya think these guys would most like to eat?! Do they always have to taste like smug obliviousness? (Forgive me Lord, I’m a sinner for Big Words….)

  8. Great article Kristen!

    I definitely don’t think there is a simple answer to this one.

    As a “woman in engineering” I have not experienced the same things as some of the others who have commented. I struggle more with the loneliness of consistently being the only woman in the room and also with the likelihood that I pursued computer science as a degree because it was hard and I was encouraged to do so not because it was my true passion. I wonder if it is more common for more men than women to be passionate about science and engineering due to different wiring. If this is the case and then women decide to have children, it is very difficult to aggressively pursue advancement in a career they are less passionate about than being a mother.

  9. When I started college I was majoring in English. After two years of that I switched English to be my minor and changed my major to physics. I saw more opportunities in the sciences and it fit better into my career goals. I loved math and science in high school, but I did not first choose to study science in college because I could not picture myself as a scientist. My mind just couldn’t imagine it.

    Interestingly, when I changed my major, the whole way others viewed me changed. Before, when I told people I was studying English, the response was “Oh, that’s nice.” But when I say now that I’m studying physics, the response is, “Wow! That’s hard!” and I am respected in a way. I don’t see the same response towards men that introduce themselves as physics, math, or engineering majors. I think it is because that, for the most part, people’s mental picture of ‘scientist’ is a man. So, when I share that I too am a scientist, they have to radically change their ‘scientist’ picture as well as their picture of me.

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