Donna Strickland, first woman to win Nobel Prize in Physics in 55 years

“An encouraging sign for women in science and more widely for diversity that fosters innovation”


Paris, 2 October -- UNESCO congratulates this year’s 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics laureates:  Donna Strickland, Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou for their groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics.  

“In particular, the recognition of Donna Strickland should be an encouraging sign for all women in science and more widely for diversity that fosters innovation,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

Dr. Strickland is the third woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics since its creation, and the first female laureate in 55 years in this discipline after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.  

“The acknowledgment of Donna Strickland’s accomplishments sends an important message of encouragement to girls and women to better commit themselves to the sciences.  More broadly, these three Nobel Prize Laureates should spark the talent of girls and boys who will shape the world of tomorrow. Because great diversity fosters greater innovation, we need ever more brilliant minds to get involved in science, new technologies and innovation to tackle the complex challenges of the 21st Century,” said Ms. Azoulay. 

UNESCO supports women in science, where they are still too often underrepresented and under-recognized. UNESCO was honored by the participation of Dr. Mourou in the International Year of Light, coordinated by UNESCO, and by the involvement of the Optical Society (OSA), then chaired by Dr. Strickland in devising the International Year of Light’s programmes.  

The gender bias in science is real and impacts women at all levels, as shown by the UNESCO Science Report.  Less than 30% of researchers are women. Until today, women only represented 3% of Nobel Prize winners in science. Research suggests that women are less represented than men at prestigious universities and among senior faculty, the very positions where researchers publish the most. This leads to less research funding, a lower publication rate, less visibility and slower advancement in their careers. 

This gender bias translates into research outcomes, and affects society as a whole. Medical research focusing on men has led to inappropriate treatments for women.  Studies have shown that in the field of Artificial Intelligence, such biases are replicated and amplified.  

All of these issues can be addressed. Several fellowship programmes support women scientists at key moments of their careers, through the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (TWAS).  

For the past 20 years, UNESCO and L’Oréal have joined forces to recognize outstanding women researchers. To date, 102 exceptional women scientists have received the L’Oréal UNESCO for Women in Science Prize. Three of them, Ada Yonath, Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, have since won a Nobel Prize for their scientific achievements. 


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