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Awards Named After Men Are More Likely to Go to… Men

Prestigious awards like the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes are disproportionately given to men, but a new study suggests that the gender of their namesakes might be a big reason why

It may shock absolutely no one to learn that women represent less than three percent of Nobel laureates or that they require higher qualifications to land a Pulitzer Prize compared to men. There is little question that this is a direct consequence of sexism in academic circles and across various industries, but a new study suggests that there’s another reason why so few women win such prestigious accolades: Too many of them are named after men.  

The findings, presented at the European Geoscience Union General Assembly in Vienna, found that when awards have a male namesake, people are more primed to think a man deserves them. In other words, when prestigious panels and committees hear a guy’s name, their lizard-brains are like, “How about another guy’s name?!” 

To demonstrate this, researchers at the University of Birmingham in England analyzed 9,000 award recipients across 345 awards in the fields of science and medicine in the U.S. and U.K. Overall, women received just 15 percent of awards dating back to the 18th century. But when they focused on the 214 awards that were named after men, the number was even lower — a mere 12 percent. 

On the other hand, when the researchers looked at the 93 awards that weren’t named after anyone, women were far more likely to receive them (about 24 percent of the time). Likewise, when awards were named after a woman, women received them 47 percent of the time. And of the 12 awards that were named after both men and women, women won those 32 percent of the time.

“If the awards are not named after a person, the gender balance in prizes is more balanced,” study co-author Stefan Krause told Nature. 

“If there is an unconscious bias at play, either among nominators or the jury, women are likely to be disadvantaged when most awards are named after men,” added Johanna Stadmark, a geologist at Lund University in Sweden. “This is very important and useful data to have. Only with data can we make a case and start a change.”

While this may not be the key to curbing misogyny in academia, having awards with more neutral names could do a lot to level the playing field. “Prizes are an excellent way to get role models in the limelight, which in turn could change the gender balance of the field,” said Curt Rice, president of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

And so, the name of the game here: Anything not remotely male.