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Nobel Prize

Donna Strickland: the female Nobel winner deemed not important enough for Wikipedia entry

Site moderator rejected submission for Donna Strickland, the first female physics winner in 55 years, in March

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 10:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 8:32pm

When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm announced the Nobel Physics Prize this week, anyone wanting to find out more about one of the three winners would have drawn a blank on Wikipedia.

Until around an hour and a half after the award was announced on Tuesday, the Canadian physicist Donna Strickland was not deemed significant enough to merit her own page on the user-edited encyclopaedia.

The oversight has once again highlighted the marginalisation of women in science and gender bias at Wikipedia.

Strickland is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo and former president of the Optical Society, but when a Wikipedia user attempted to create a profile for her in March, the page was denied by a moderator.

“This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article,” said the moderator .

Soon after Tuesday’s announcement, however, the Wikipedia community scrambled to build up a profile, completing sections on her research, biography and – most critically – her awards.

Nobel physics prize goes to laser researchers, including first woman to win award in 55 years

But the belated recognition contrasted with that afforded to Strickland’s colleague Gerard Mourou – with whom she shared the award – who had a Wikipedia page in 2005.

Strickland shared the award with Mourou and Arthur Ashkin for their work on pulse lasers – widely viewed as a precursor to precise machining and laser surgery.

She is the first woman to win the award since it went to Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. Marie Curie was the first to win in 1903.

Twenty-four hours later, US biochemist Frances Arnold was awarded the chemistry prize. Both women shared the prizes with male colleagues.

Strickland thought of Curie when asked about an Italian physicist who recently suggested physics was “built by men”.

“I wonder what Marie Curie would have thought of that,” Strickland told Time.

Strickland also appeared sanguine over the slowness to recognise the achievements of female scientists, telling the Canadian Press: “We should never lose the fact that we are moving forward. We are always marching forward.”

The Nobel committee is increasingly aware of its poor track record with female scientists: last year all prizewinners were men.

CERN suspends physicist after ‘offensive’ lecture about women and science

“We are disappointed looking at the larger perspective that more women have not been awarded,” Goran Hansson, the vice-chair of the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation, said at the time.

“I suspect there are many more women who are deserving to be considered for the prize.”

Strickland’s win has reinvigorated the discussion over the dearth of female laureates in the sciences. Over the 117 years of the award, 50 women have won from a possible 923 prizes.

Strickland has expressed hope that her win might mark a turning point for younger female scientists looking to become involved in research.

“If somebody else thinks something that you don’t believe in, just think they’re wrong and you’re right and keep going,” Strickland told a young scientist at the press conference following the announcement of her win.

“That’s pretty much the way I always think.”

The episode also cast light on Wikipedia’s own gender bias: just 16 per cent of the site’s volunteer editors are female and only 17 per cent of entries dedicated to notable people are for women.

Women winners of scientific Nobels throughout history

Physics

1903 – Marie Curie

1963 – Maria Goeppert-Mayer

2018 – Donna Strickland

Chemistry

1911 – Marie Curie

1935 – Irene Joliot-Curie

1964 – Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

2009 – Ada Yonath

2018 – Frances Arnold

Medicine

1947 – Gerty Cori

1977 – Rosalyn Yalow

1983 – Barbara McClintock

1986 – Rita Levi-Montalcini

1988 – Gertrude Elion

1995 – Christiane Nuesslein-Volhard

2004 – Linda Buck

2008 – Francoise Barre-Sinoussi

2009 – Elizabeth Blackburn

2009 – Carol Greider

2014 – May-Britt Moser

2015 – Youyou Tu

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse