Carolyn R. Bertozzi: Women Can Be Winners Too

It was 2:00 a.m. when Carolyn R. Bertozzi received a phone call that would change her life. Coming from the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, she was told that she was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on click chemistry, together with Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless. 

  • Carolyn R. Bertozzi was recently awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her advancement of click chemistry, 
  • She is the eighth woman to achieve the Nobel Prize in Chemistry while 181 men have received this award, showing the evident issue of gender inequality in the STEM field.
  • This gender gap may be attributed to the long-standing patriarchal stereotypes and misogynistic narratives rooted in society’s treatment of women, as well as the lack of female role models and representation in selection committees.
  • Bertozzi’s victory empowers women by reminding them that they deserve to take up space and be seen in their fields. Moreover, her victory prompts everyone to start eliminating gender barriers.

Bertozzi has greatly contributed to the world of chemistry, with her achievements spanning from bioorthogonal chemistry, a term she coined herself, to click chemistry. Currently a professor at Stanford University, she has also garnered multiple awards for her lifetime of work. She is the eighth woman to achieve the Nobel Prize in Chemistry while 181 men have received this award. 

Bertozzi’s recognition by the Nobel Committee for Chemistry is an enormous achievement for chemists as her work enables them to precisely manipulate cells with chemical tools to understand their behavior, whether they are healthy or diseased. More importantly, her victory is a milestone for women whose accomplishments have long been ignored when it comes to not only the Nobel Prizes, but also the broad field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as a whole. 

The gender gap in STEM

The Nobel Committees have a long history of unequally giving Nobel Prizes as they mostly award men. However, the lack of inclusivity is a case of not only the Nobel Committees. The lack of female awardees presents a much larger phenomenon of gender inequality. This issue is a manifestation of the huge gender gap in STEM.

Currently, only 28% of the STEM workforce is composed of women, with approximately a third of chemistry researchers being women. There are also only 60 female Nobel Prize recipients of a total of 954 Nobel Prize recipients. While this may seem like another statistic displaying the huge gender gap, this exposes a larger issue of women being considered inferior compared to men. Thus, it is important to ask: what are some reasons for the existence of the gender gap? What does the significant lack of female Nobel Prize awardees tell us about this gap? 

Gender disparity in STEM is caused by a variety of factors, ranging from the lack of female role models to the inherent discrimination against these women. However, all these factors can be traced to the long-standing patriarchal stereotypes and misogynistic narratives rooted in society’s treatment of women. 

When young girls show even the slightest interest in STEM, their passions are immediately invalidated by those around them. They are told to choose something more practical or suitable for them as women, or they are labeled as “brave” for pursuing these interests. Women are discouraged because society brainwashes them early on into thinking that failure is the only path available. 

Reaching their dreams is not even the hard part. It is when they finally arrive in these male-dominated fields that women face the most discrimination and sexism. This explains the first reason why women are less likely to win the prestigious Nobel Prizes. Women primarily achieve less success in the STEM environment not because they are any less capable than men, but because they are made to be. 

The perfect example of barriers that prevent female contributors from succeeding is the wage gap. Women are paid 20% less than their male counterparts in STEM-related jobs. They are also less likely to be given promotions or the same opportunities as their male coworkers, which is extremely disheartening for women who aim for a career in STEM as they are not given an equal playing field. Ultimately, when there are more barriers placed in the way of female scientists, they have less of a chance to triumph. 

The lack of recognition of successful women 

“I’ve been in environments where a woman wins a prize, and she’s the first woman to win a prize . . . and I can’t help but think about all the women who came before me,” Bertozzi said in an interview with Adam Smith, the Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach. “[They] did spectacularly important work, every bit as important as anything I’ve done, but didn’t have the opportunity to be recognized.” Her statement reflects the second factor causing the lack of female representation among the Nobel Prize laureates: even if women make immeasurable contributions in their respective fields, the contributions of men are still celebrated more.

Although these systemic disadvantages are the ones hindering more women from winning prizes, Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, who is one of the two women in the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, calls out the lack of female players in Nobel selection panels as a contributor to the scarcity of female recipients. “That’s kind of a passive way to approach the problem . . . We also need to address it ourselves,” Wittung-Stafshede remarks.

The limited number of women in these Nobel selection committees also expose the power imbalance in male-dominated fields, where women have less bargaining power to fight for this recognition or even call out the inequalities they face. Therefore, besides opening the door to more women in STEM, we must collectively ensure that the women who have already entered the field are seen as much as the men surrounding them. 

A step forward towards breaking barriers

Through her breakthroughs, Bertozzi not only propelled the field of chemistry but also the dreams of women who aim to propel the fields they are passionate about. Her win sends a powerful message to all women, even beyond the world of STEM: they deserve to take up and be seen in the spaces they belong in. 

Furthermore, her win is a signal for the Nobel Committees to start leveling the playing field in STEM, starting by equally celebrating both genders. Most importantly, all of us must be reminded to evaluate the barriers that have constricted women for generations and eliminate them for the coming generations.

The gender gap has taken ages to improve and will probably take much more to significantly minimize. Similarly, it might take as long for women to gain equal recognition as their male counterparts. All of these things are uncertain, but what is certain is that we are able to start tackling this issue. For now, let us support all women today so that we can empower them tomorrow. 

WRITTEN BY MAEGAN NOCHE
EDITED BY KATCH VIERNESTO
GRAPHICS BY GEF EIGEN LIM

REFERENCES

Carolyn Bertozzi – Interview. (2022, October 5). NobelPrize.org. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2022/bertozzi/interview/

Cross, R., & Sweeney, E. (2022, October 5). Basketball fan, keyboard player, and now Nobel Prize winner in chemistry: Mass. native caps pioneering career with highest honor. The Boston Globe. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/10/05/world/basketball-fan-keyboard-player-now-nobel-prize-winner-chemistry-mass-native-caps-pioneering-career-with-highest-honor/

Day, A. E., Corbett, P., & Boyle, J. (2020). Is there a gender gap in chemical sciences scholarly communication? Chemical Science, 8(11), 2277-2301. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9SC04090K

Langin, K. (2021, October 12). One reason men often sweep the Nobels: few women nominees. Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/one-reason-men-often-sweep-nobels-few-women-nominees

The Gender Pay Gap in STEM. (2021, April 7). STEM Women. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.stemwomen.com/the-gender-pay-gap-in-stem

The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. (n.d.). AAUW. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/

Vereckey, B. (2022, October 7). The 60 women who have won the Nobel Prize. Stacker. https://stacker.com/stories/1709/60-women-who-have-won-nobel-prize

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