Dr. Andrea Ghez, Only the Fourth Woman to Win the Nobel Prize for Physics, Shows the Rarity of High-Achieving Women in Science

In high school, when Ghez told her college counselor that she intended to apply to MIT, the counselor responded, “MIT doesn’t usually accept women.” Ghez confided to her woman science teacher, who told her, “Just apply. What’s the worst they can do? Say no?”

Dr. Andrea Ghez, Only the Fourth Woman to Win the Nobel Prize for Physics, Shows the Rarity of High-Achieving Women in Science
Andrea Mia Ghez, an American astronomer and physics professor at UCLA the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. (Wikimedia Commons)

From their inception in 1901, the Nobel prizes have recognized the highest achievements—those which “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”—in chemistry, literature, peace, physics, physiology and/or medicine, with a special memorial prize in economics.

Of more than 900 Nobel Prize laureates, 866 have been men, while only 56 have been women. Only 16 Nobel prize winners have been Black.

Last month, Ms. had the opportunity to speak with one of these women recipients: Dr. Andrea Ghez, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics. (She split the prize with Roger Penrose from the University of Oxford and Reinhard Genzel of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.)

As only the fourth woman (all of them white) to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, Ghez understands that the Nobel also confers on recipients the responsibility of serving as an international role model for girls contemplating careers in science and for women scientists.

She is very much aware of the challenges that continue to prevent both people of color and women of all races from entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, much less succeeding. Institutional research shows that students of color, women of all races and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds drop, fail or withdraw from introductory courses in STEM fields at greater rates than the average. This problem has been worsened by the pandemic and the shift to remote education, which is exacerbating the problems of students from groups generally underrepresented in STEM.

Retention problems made worse by the effects of the pandemic on education have cascading effects on society. When STEM fields are dominated by a single group, research and development are not enriched by a plurality of perspectives. When students of all races, ethnicities, and genders do not persist in fields that are high in status and influence, it denies them the ability to shape science, policy and the future, not to mention undermining their earning potential over their lifetimes. And when scientific literacy and numeracy are the purview of elites, democracy and public health suffer because citizens lack basic skills vital to decision-making.

The Rarity of High-Achieving Women in Science

Dr. Andrea Ghez, Only the Fourth Woman to Win the Nobel Prize for Physics, Shows the Rarity of High-Achieving Women in Science
(© Johan Jarnestad /The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences / Nobel Prize)

Ghez’s path to the research that earned her a Nobel Prize offers insight into the barriers even high-achieving white women experience in male-dominated STEM fields.

Ghez grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Her father came from a more privileged background, while her mother did not complete college. Her father was Jewish, while her mother was Catholic. At home, different—and sometimes conflicting—perspectives were a fact of life for Ghez. She learned to feel at ease with both curiosity and disagreement, largely as a result of parents who were unified in their appreciation of education and who encouraged her pursuit of knowledge.

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Words like “lucky” and “fortunate” recur in Ghez’s account of her development as a scientist. Her successes owed to certain privileges she enjoyed, but other, less predictable items factored into her success. She attended schools that provided her a stellar education: the University of Chicago’s Lab School, MIT and CalTech. She had the attention and support of teachers who encouraged her to be tenacious in pursuit of her goals, unorthodox as those may have seemed to some at the time, and gave her the support she needed to surmount obstacles and early failures.

Although she did not realize it at the time, she was lucky indeed to have a woman science teacher—Judy Keane—in high school. When Ghez told her college counselor that she intended to apply to MIT, the counselor responded, “MIT doesn’t usually accept women.”

Upset, Ghez confided to Keane, who told her, “Just apply. What’s the worst they can do? Say no?”

Ghez describes this as “a lovely early lesson in how to persevere,” that helped her to develop what she described as the muscle to persevere, and to turn problems into opportunities to grow and learn.

Ghez credits her success to a series of mentors and advisors who supported and nourished her aspirations. Male and female alike, they provided her with opportunities to do research as an undergraduate, and these opportunities not only opened up the world of science to her, they taught her to be ambitious and to innovate.

Despite setbacks and rejections, Ghez pursued her desire to use the Keck telescopes in Hawai’i to see our galaxy differently, ultimately focusing on the massive object—now understood to be a black hole—at the center of our galaxy that she has studied now for years.

Despite all the talk of resilience, perseverance and grit over recent years, not all students live in circumstances that allow for the development of these skills. Ghez would be among the first to acknowledge that individual successes—like Ghez’s or that of Jennifer Doudna, who won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her groundbreaking work on the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors—do not provide road maps for making STEM fields better at teaching and retaining a diverse student body.

Instead, accounts of role models tell us a lot about the few extraordinary individuals who managed to succeed despite the obstacles they encountered. While role models like Ghez and Doudna can encourage girls to aspire to careers in STEM fields, they don’t address the structural issues of race, gender and class that discourage students from pursuing scientific knowledge or the social and cultural barriers that lead them to believe they do not belong in those fields when they do attempt to enter them.

Ghez hinted at these more intransigent problems during our conversation, observing that there’s a “monastic side” to science training, that suggests that if you are not fully immersed in research and are thinking about other things, you are not serious.

For her, connections to communities that have very different social dynamics from her professional world proved healthy and sustaining. For those who are minorities in STEM fields, strong investments and presence in communities in which they are not minorities can make all the difference, providing support and sustenance that is often absent in STEM fields: “Giving yourself the opportunity to look away” makes for better science, she told Ms.

Privilege, luck, a learned ability to turn a problem into an opportunity (as well as the safety net required to do that), and access to education might allow some women to succeed both as scientists and human beings with deep and meaningful ties to their families and communities. But these ground-breakers remain the exception rather than the rule, and the whiteness of science at all levels confirms that the barriers for students of color remain very difficult to surmount, even by the most extraordinary of individuals.

Scientists themselves do not necessarily hold the keys to effecting meaningful change in their fields that result from structural racism and sexism. Sometimes they are too close to the problems; sometimes they are too invested in the traditions in which they were trained. Ghez is the first to acknowledge this: “Just because we’re good scientists doesn’t mean that we’re good social scientists.”

While we celebrate the accomplishments of these rare and high-achieving women in science, in the more hopeful months to come, we need to redouble efforts to change the conditions in STEM fields so that all students have the tools and support they need to succeed and not just a truly exceptional—and lucky—few.

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Carol Stabile is a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches interdisciplinary courses on gender, race and class in media. From 2008 to 2014, she was director of the University’s Center for the Study of Women in Society. She is the author of several books, including The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist.