Lost in the fuss about the Nobel Peace Prize this past week is the fact that women have done so well this year. As the New York Times mentions this morning, three women won Nobels this year in the sciences, a first. I was interested to see that two of the women who won prizes, in medicine and in economics, cited gender as an obstacle they overcame and their hope that receiving the honor would serve as an inspiration to those coming behind them.
In an NPR interview, Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who won the economics prize, recalled that she was not permitted to take high school trigonometry because she was a girl. She sounded almost giddy with vindication. Carol Greider, who won in medicine, said in a Times interview, “I certainly hope it’s a sign that things are going to be different in the future.” She notes that she pointedly brought her kids to the announcement press conference, saying, “How many men have won the Nobel in the last few years, and they have kids the same age as mine, and their kids aren’t in the picture? That’s a big difference, right? And that makes a statement.”
For my 1987 book, Academic Women, I interviewed faculty women at the University of Pennsylvania. By definition, these women were groundbreakers, when women faculty at Ivy League universities were still relatively rare. Yet several said things like, “In a perfect world, I probably would have been a scientist,” and “I think if I was encouraged, I would have gone to medical school, but that was not an encouragement.”
So have things changed? Here’s a hopeful sign. In the past 5 years, 23 of my students have gone on to MD-PhD programs, for training to do medicine at its highest level of research and practice. It is typically predicted that these students will finish their training in their mid-30’s, cutting right through the bulk of the childbearing years. Of these 23 students of mine, 12 were women. Thanks to women like Dr. Greider, the door is now open and they are streaming through.