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The Nobel Peace Prize’s problem with women

October 12, 2011

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize award makes it clear that the current Peace Prize Committee has a serious problem with women. In fact, they have two.

Their problems have nothing to do with the choice of laureates; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakel Karman are all inspirational winners with exceptional accomplishments.

But the way the award was made this year exposes two uncomfortable realities: (1) The men who speak on behalf of the committee are ambivalent about the importance of making the award to women, and (2) the consequence of dividing the prize three ways in practice diminishes the value of each woman’s contribution.

Gender balance among laureates

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chair, Thorbjørn Jagland, has repeatedly been asked about the need for more female laureates. There is no requirement, he says, to give the award to a certain number of women. The sex of the candidates is irrelevant; the award goes to the individual making the greatest contribution.

When he says this, Jagland mimics an argument familiar from any discussion of legislating equity: quality is compromised by forcing gender balance. But this is only true if there genuinely is a skewed distribution of quality between the peace work of men and women. Have men received 85% of the individual peace prizes because men have done 85% of the meritorious work?

A more likely explanation for why so few women receive the Nobel Peace Prize is that the work of women is simply not seen. Given that the committee changes every few years, the system itself must be modified to assure the persistent visibility of worthy women. Maybe this means composing the committee in new ways, or maybe it means something as radical as a quota.

Norway has shown international leadership in the use of quotas to improve the conditions of both sexes. Political committees must have at least 40% of each sex, as must the Boards of Directors of publicly traded companies. Quotas force diversity, and diversity enhances quality.

A quota on the Nobel Peace Prize would liberate the process from the tunnel vision of any individual committee members. The committee must achieve gender balance over time: henceforth, there must be a minimum of 40% women and 40% men in any ten-year cycle.

A step forward

Maybe this year’s award shows that the current committee’s eyes already are open, maybe it shows that the problem has been solved. After all, the committee clearly has been uncomfortable with the status quo.

Geir Lundestad, Director of the Nobel Institute, noted that with one simple award, the number of female laureates had gone from 12 to 15 — a 25% increase!

Thorbjørn Jagland was asked if this year’s prize can be compared to the award given in 1976. Yes, he says, it can be. The award in 1976 went to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan for their work in Northern Ireland. How is this year’s award like that one? The answer is obvious.

Lundestad and Jagland both make it clear: the award this year is in part about increasing the number of women.

Devaluing the prize

Why would there be so much rhetoric denying that gender matters, denying that anything except excellence is relevant, in a year when the prize goes to three women?

Perhaps the committee didn’t want the women to feel cheapened by the award. This concern would be understandable, given that this year’s laureates individually receive a smaller monetary prize than usual, as it is to be divided in three equal parts.

Only once before has the prize been divided three ways. That was in 1994, when it went to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Those three laureates were part of the same conflict, and they needed the same encouragement to keep moving towards peace.

This year’s winners received the prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” While this is a laudable focus, the three laureates have not worked together, they have not contributed to a solution to the same specific conflict, and they do not work in the same organization; the abstractness of their connection is something new.

We therefore surmise that the Peace Prize Committee had three good women candidates and chose a topic that unites them. Having three laureates may be a good way to magnify the impact of the award. It may be a good way to get more women on the list and to acknowledge that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has historically undervalued women.

But we need to see more women laureates without devaluing their particular prizes. We can’t have a disproportionate number of single male prizewinners, and then make up for it by dividing a depreciated award among several women one year. The committee should not improve gender balance by creating a fire sale on female activists.

The practice of dividing the prize among all recipients should be changed. Instead, the prize should bear a constant value, regardless of the number of laureates. This system should be implemented immediately, for this year’s winners.

Under the leadership of Thorbjørn Jagland, 60% of the committee’s laureates have been women, but only 33% of the total prize money has gone to women. Under Jagland’s committee, five individuals have received the Nobel Peace Prize, but the men have received three times more money per person than the women!

The committee must show that they value this year’s female laureates as much as they value Barack Obama or Lin Xiaobo.

An improved Nobel system

The historical record of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee reveals inadequate awareness of the peace work of women. And this year, when it finally has been seen, the economic value of the prize is deliberately lowered by spreading it thinly.

These problems compel two changes. The economic problem can be solved by holding the prize amount constant for each winner. The visibility problem can be solved with a quota compelling that 40% of the prizes hereafter go to women.

These changes will of course be resisted. There will be attempts to hide behind Alfred Nobel’s will, claiming that the statutes don’t allow this. But the statutes have been changed before.

There will also be attempts to argue that quotas are in conflict with quality, that if women just work a little harder or a little smarter, they will be seen. Some will claim that quotas are degrading to women — as though invisibility isn’t.

Research shows that gender balance enhances quality. Quotas have not reduced the quality of corporate Boards, and there is no reason to expect they will reduce the quality of Peace Prize recipients, either.

It’s time for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to embrace its Scandinavian values; it’s time for them to commit to a longterm strategy enhancing the visibility of women’s work in spreading peace, and it’s time for them to value the work of women as much as they value the work of men.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute responded to this essay here, which I in turn answered in a subsequent posting.

A Norwegian version of this essay was published in Dagbladet on October 18, 2011, under the title Nobelkomiteens kvinneproblem and on under the title Kvinner på billigsalg.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2011 13:50

    Thank you for this excellent contribution to the debate. I have had an uneasy feeling in my stomach ever since the laureates were announced, but failed to connect the dots and to feel entitled to speak up until now. It is sad that it is awards appointed to women that create this sort of debate, and it brings the dilemma: Should we be pleased that women got acknowledged this time, and silence any critique we may have about the way it was done? Or speak up and be perceived as impossible to please, unable to celebrate achievements and stealing the laureates’ thunder for the greater cause…Thank you for making me choose.

  2. October 14, 2011 13:55

    Thanks, Mari. I think we should embrace and celebrate the winners as wonderful women with amazing accomplishments. But we should criticize the committee and the process. I don’t want to steal the laureate’s thunder, but getting our Jagland and Lundestad to think a bit about their approach is important, I think. A Norwegian version of this is going to appear in Dagbladet on Tuesday. Could be interesting …

  3. October 18, 2011 14:50

    Did you ever consider the possibility that there may just be a lower number of female candidate than male candidates? When considering working for peace and achieving actual results is quite difficult, it certainly helps to be a head of state, a member of parliament or at least the front figure of an NGO. Globally, men tend to dominate these positions. I therefore lean toward suggesting that gender equality should be solved at lower levels first. Who wins the nobel peace prize may just be a sympthom of the larger problem.

    • October 18, 2011 16:19

      There are issues at lower levels to work on, to be sure. But, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is not limited by the submitted nominations; they can give the prize to whoever they want.
      So, we can’t let them off the hook that easily. It’s true that it helps to be in one of the categories you mention. That is, those types of positions are well represented. My point is reinforced by this: Women’s work is invisible to the committee. But they can fix that. They could fix it just by saying “nominations of women are especially encouraged.” Also, the job category issue has nothing to do with my “spreading it thin” argument, which is a separate issue.
      Anyway, thanks for the comment. I continue to believe that there are as may worthy women as men, and I think it wouldn’t be hard at all for Jagland&co to see them more consistently, rather than trying to make up for it with a group award.

  4. October 18, 2011 18:07

    Super post. I follow up with a reply here… My big question: Why stop with the Peace Prize?

  5. Alberto Pierpaoli permalink
    November 26, 2011 15:06

    A better idea will be to split all the Nobel prizes and give two: one for each gender. The exposure that this prize has all over the world will stress, in this way, the importance of women in our present world.

    • November 26, 2011 15:12

      That is a great idea, Alberto! Thank you for making that comment. In the case of the Peace Prize and Literature, this seems like an obvious move to make. In the case of the sciences, the objection will be that only 20% of the top researchers (if that!) are women, so that it would be unfair to give 50% of the prize money to them. But we all admit that we need to raise the visibility of women in the sciences to attract more women — something which is important not just for reasons of social justice but also for the quality of the science (as I discuss in Why hire (wo)men?). So this would be a terrific way to do this. Excellent!

  6. John permalink
    December 10, 2011 14:58

    Yes, a women quota will certainly be a Norwegian way doing things. Norwegian left-wingers are obsessed with placing women in leadership positions and giving them special treatment, regardless of qualifications or merit.

    Why? God knows. Are women eligible for 40 % of the Nobel peace prizes? Most likely not. But that is not an issue. The issue is to give women special treatment and quotas. It is the meaning of life for left-wingers in the Kingdom of Norway.

    All things that stand in the way of this, be it merit, qualifications, common sense or even the will of Alfred Nobel are mere details and formalitites.

    Norway should indeed be stripped of the right to hand out the Nobel peace prize.

    • December 10, 2011 16:03

      Hi John, and thanks for this comment, which I’m happy to post in the spirit of open dialog. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll convince each other of much, so I won’t waste your time trying to do so, but I think your views are shared by many, and it’s important to get these kinds of perspectives out in the open.

      One place where we have quotas in Norway involves the Boards of Directors of publicly traded companies. A board in such a company must have at least 40% men and at least 40% women. You might be interested to know that this measure was introduced by a minister from the Conservative Party, and was passed by the government he was part of.

      My broadest point about quotas is that the opposition between quotas and what you call “merit, qualifications, common sense” is a false opposition. In fact, the absence of quotas is the reason that these kinds of things can be ignored. It’s the absence of quotas that lets men dominate in most domains of professional life. Like chooses like. Networks are crucial. Nepotism and sexism are very powerful forces, and dramatic measures will be needed to counter their effects.

      I’ve written several blog posts that refer not to political arguments, but to research. I look at research on how promotions are carried out in companies, for example, or research on how hiring is done. The research is clear: we have no meritocracies, quality is not the deciding criteria.

      In the private sector, you may be interested to know that profitability rises as gender balance in leadership teams is achieved. Furthermore, job satisfaction among both men and women rises as gender balance in leadership emerges. Here are two posts providing you with research to study, if you’re interested in that:

      Equality targets as a leadership tool
      Peer evaluation is not objective: Academia and Law Firms

      And here’s a more political piece, if that’s your preference. I think we could have an interesting discussion about this one:

      There are only 3 reasons women don’t make it to the top

      Carry on!


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