The Nobel Peace Prize’s problem with women
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.
A Norwegian version of this essay was published in Dagbladet on October 18, 2011, under the title Nobelkomiteens kvinneproblem and on dagbladet.no under the title Kvinner på billigsalg.