Nancy Hopkins was “thrilled” this week when two women, Frances H. Arnold and Donna Strickland, were among the eight scientists awarded Nobel Prizes. Hopkins, an accomplished microbiologist, has been advocating for women in science for decades—ever since she realized in the 1990s that her own lab space at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was smaller than her male peers’ for no apparent reason other than her gender.

When Hopkins was an undergraduate at Harvard University in the 1960s, working in the lab of Nobel laureate James Watson, she assumed advancement in science was all about ability: Write a great paper, push the field forward and then reap the rewards. But over time her own experiences and those of her female peers convinced her otherwise. An MIT report she wrote in 1999 about gender discrepancies became a linchpin of efforts to increase the number of women in the upper echelons of science, both at MIT and nationally.

Hopkins, who studied the genetics of early development and cancer risk, walked out of a talk given in 2005 by then–Harvard Pres. Lawrence Summers. He said during the talk that innate biological differences might explain why there were more men than women in science—a claim Hopkins contended the data did not support. The conflict over his remarks was reportedly a factor in Summer’s decision to resign abruptly early the next year. More recently Hopkins, now officially an emerita professor at MIT, has been studying cancer prevention and early detection, while continuing to advocate for women in science.

This week’s Nobel awards got Hopkins, now 75, thinking again about the role of gender in the recognition of scientific accomplishments. Amid the latest round of prize announcements, she shared her thoughts with Scientific American in a conversation via e-mail.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What do you think about the fact that two women won science Nobels this year?
I'm thrilled. Maybe we’re on a roll. And I know Dr. Arnold, so this is particularly exciting. [Arnold received half the 2018 chemistry Nobel, becoming the fifth woman to win that award since its founding in 1901.]

Does the relatively low number of female science prize winners—only 9 percent over the last decade and 3 percent overall—reflect the fact that the people who win tend to be older, having made discoveries many years ago when there were far fewer women in the sciences? Or is there something else going on?
In my generation it’s clear that there were already women doing Nobel Prize–level science. However, part of what made me an activist was when I discovered—to my shock—that a woman could do Nobel prize–level work and still not win the prize. In other words, no matter how great the discovery, people could simply not attribute it to a woman. The discovery made by a woman belonged to the ether, to the great wide world. I had long believed when I was young that if a woman did a great-enough experiment she could not be denied. I learned I was wrong. She could do the Nobel experiment and still not be recognized for it. Rosalind Franklin is the famous example in medicine. [An x-ray crystallographer, Franklin’s images were unacknowledged but central to the discovery of the structure of DNA, for which Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins received credit—and a Nobel.]

Is this a “pipeline” problem? Are too few women getting to positions in science where they can make Nobel-worthy contributions?
I think people don’t realize how few women there have been in positions and institutions that tend to produce Nobel laureates.

For a long time women—even when the numbers were tiny—were doing Nobel prize–level work, but not in positions that would allow them to win a Nobel prize. Jocelyn Bell Burnell may be one example. She was a student [when she did the seminal research that led her advisor to win the Nobel for discovering pulsars, fast-spinning neutron stars that emit radiation]. No matter how independent the scientist was, the credit would likely go to the head of the lab—and it would have been the custom of the time not to include a student, simply because they were a student. Since most women couldn’t get faculty jobs or lead labs, this was obviously a huge obstacle.

The Civil Rights Act and affirmative action laws and the women’s movement combined to change this, but it was only in the early 1970s that women began to trickle onto the faculties of America’s research universities.

In 1995, when I ran the committee on women in science for MIT, the percentage of women faculty for the six departments of science was only 8 percent. In biology it was 15 percent. Our biology department has been about 25 to 30 percent women over the past 20 years, and I think that is quite representative of comparable departments and schools. So, small numbers is still part of the problem.

Did you have any female role models when you were a student?
When I was in college at Harvard there were essentially no women faculty. As a student, it was obvious to me that if you even wanted to continue to be a scientist after college or graduate school you had only two options: be a technician or marry a powerful man in science—and then you might be able to get a faculty job. There really was no other way I could see it would be possible to keep working in a lab.

Do you think the gender balance will naturally improve over time as more women reach the highest levels of science, or does something have to change in the process?
I hope—and expect—that in time, the numbers will reflect the pipeline. But it will take effort. While some Nobel prizes are inevitable and some winners are inevitable, there are other topics and people who might have won instead. For this, politics and so forth plays a role, I am told. And it must be true, because really there are many things that could have won—should have won—that don’t. I imagine this, too, contributes to the small number of women laureates. So, we need to be sure that women are nominated and promoted, as men are, for these awards.

Is the Nobel committee doing enough to ensure that women have a shot at the awards?
It’s interesting that this year one of three winners in physics, Donna Strickland, was a graduate student when she conducted the prize-winning work, and she shared the prize with her thesis adviser. So, the Nobel committee saw past the title the person held at the time to look at their scientific contribution—which is wonderful. Because sometimes a student is truly a collaborator, not simply an inexperienced person doing what their adviser tells them to do.

I’m thrilled that the Nobel committee is putting an emphasis on identifying deserving women—as they should. It honors the breakthrough over the past 20 years in understanding unconscious bias and how it prevents us from recognizing the full value of work done by women. By the way, these discoveries of bias themselves deserve a Nobel Prize in my opinion. As we all learned over the past two decades, to overcome the biases we all have and to see women’s contributions fairly, you have to make a conscious effort. You have to check the data. You have to look at the facts.

Why does it matter whether any of the winners are women? Shouldn't this be a decision based purely on science, regardless of gender?
Yes! Of course it must be based on science. But it is so important for young women to see women being recognized when they achieve at the highest levels. Otherwise young women can lose confidence in themselves. When you see someone succeed who looks like you, you say: “If she did it, so can I.”