Do women scientists receive the Nobel prize only for being women?

On 15 October 2020, the German news website Der Spiegel published an interview with Prof. Reinhard Genzel. Prof. Genzel, astrophysicist and co-director of the Max Plank Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, won the Nobel Prize of Physics in 2020, together with Prof. Andrea Ghez and Prof. Roger Penrose. The prize was awarded to Genzel and Ghez for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy, and to Penrose for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.



In the interview, Genzel is asked about the relationship with his female co-winner colleague Andrea Ghez, who leads the “competing team”. Surprisingly, the comments he made are not what one would expect from a scientist that respects the work of a colleague even if they may have differences in their approach and procedures to carry out their science. It is not only that he portraits her as an angry and irrational lady, he goes beyond that, insinuating that she shared the Nobel Prize with him because the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wanted to include women in their prizes so that the Nobel Prize is not seen to be only awarded to white old men. In other words, he appears to suggest that the academy first searched for a woman to give the prize to, then looked for the other relevant people of the field and then awarded the prize. Needless to say, that this is not only a twisted way to look at the facts, but also a speculative one as there is no evidence that this is what actually happened.



Genzel’s comments provoked some reactions in the astronomical community. In particular, astrophysicist Prof. Sera Markoff expressed her opinion about this with two posts in her Facebook account (https://web.facebook.com/sera.markoff), and Dr. Julia Venturini and I wrote the following post trying to generate awareness about how sexist some members of the community are:



“This year, the Nobel Prize of Physics 2020 was awarded, jointly, to a theorist and two observers for work to understand black holes. The observers are a woman (Prof. Andrea Ghez) and a man (Prof. Reinhard Genzel). In an interview to Der Spiegel on October 15, Prof. Genzel suggests that the Nobel Prize was awarded to that topic just to be able to give the prize to a woman. Surprisingly, Prof. Genzel prefers to downgrade his own contribution to science (and Penrose’s) to disparage the achievements of a female colleague. He is also assuming that in other topics of Physics there are no women to award (which might be true, but we cannot know based on his words). But, bottom-line, Prof. Genzel is falling into the classical, humiliating comment, that so many of us are so tired of hearing: "she got it just for being a woman". Comments like this cast a shadow on women’s achievements. Prof. Genzel also claims "But she enjoyed the advantage of having access to the Keck in Hawaii….". Another classical stereotype assigned to women. If we manage to be part of important projects, it’s just because we were "lucky". And Prof. Genzel was not lucky to get access to powerful telescopes? Note that access to the best telescopes and instruments in the world is something that scientists from rich countries enjoy the advantage to have. Should this be mentioned every time that a scientist of a leading country gets an award?



It is completely shameful and unacceptable that in the XXI century we have to stand world-wide recognised science leaders making such offensive and denigrating declarations towards women. In the end, it’s like we, women, can never get it right: either we are not given jobs or recognitions because of our gender or, when we get them, it is also because of our gender. It seems that, according to certain people, women lack the skills to do great science.



In a different interview, and with a completely opposite, and diplomatic tone, Prof. Andrea Ghez claims [about female role models]: "I think that’s so important because I think seeing people who look like you, or people who are different, succeeding shows you that there’s an opportunity there, that you can do it, that this is a field that is open to you. So I think that visibility is so important."

Prof. Genzel should realise that long years devoted to build a career in science for a woman and become a role model are completely in vain to fight gender imbalance when a single, "innocent comment" like his downgrades and humiliates women’s achievements.

Prof. Genzel should note that just by dropping those comments, he might have made a young girl fascinated by the universe decide that a profession in astrophysics is not for her. Because, who wants to hear "your shine is not for your talent and efforts but because of your gender"?

We are tired and furious. Outside, we often have to stand the pressure from society for not dropping our careers to take care of our children. Inside, we have to stand the comments of famous colleagues denigrating our work. This is unacceptable and has to stop now.”



Dr. Julia Venturini and Dr. Andrea Fortier

Astrophysicists