The Matilda Effect in science: Awards and prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s

Science is stratified, with an unequal distribution of research facilities and rewards among scientists. Awards and prizes, which are critical for shaping scientific career trajectories, play a role in this stratification when they differentially enhance the status of scientists who already have large reputations: the ‘Matthew Effect’. Contrary to the Mertonian norm of universalism – the expectation that the personal attributes of scientists do not affect evaluations of their scientific claims and contributions – in practice, a great deal of evidence suggests that the scientific efforts and achievements of women do not receive the same recognition as do those of men: the ‘Matilda Effect’. Awards in science, technology, engineering and medical (STEM) fields are not immune to these biases. We outline the research on gender bias in evaluations of research and analyze data from 13 STEM disciplinary societies. While women’s receipt of professional awards and prizes has increased in the past two decades, men continue to win a higher proportion of awards for scholarly research than expected based on their representation in the nomination pool. The results support the powerful twin influences of implicit bias and committee chairs as contributing factors. The analysis sheds light on the relationship of external social factors to women’s science careers and helps to explain why women are severely underrepresented as winners of science awards. The ghettoization of women’s accomplishments into a category of ‘women-only’ awards also is discussed.

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