Maria Ressa
© Aaron Favila/AP
Veteran Philippine journalist Maria Ressa is one of very few women to have won a Nobel prize.
Swedish scientist and head of the academy that awards Nobel prizes has ruled out the notion of gender or ethnicity quotas in the selection of laureates for the prestigious award.

Göran Hansson, the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, accepted that there are "so few women" in the running but conceded the prize would ultimately go to those who are "found the most worthy".

Investigative journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines, was the only woman honoured this year, sharing the Nobel peace prize with fellow journalist Dmitry Muratov, alongside 12 men.

Since its inception in 1901, only 59 Nobel prizes have gone to women, comprising just 6.2% of the total.

Hansson, who informs chemistry, economics and physics Nobel prizewinners of their triumph, defended his stance on quotas in an interview with the Agence France-Presse.

"It's sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past but still existing. And there's so much more to do," he said.

"We have decided we will not have quotas for gender or ethnicity. We want every laureate [to] be accepted ... because they made the most important discovery, and not because of gender or ethnicity. And that is in line with the spirit of Alfred Nobel's last will."

Goran Hansson
© Claudio Bresciani/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty Images
Goran Hansson (C), permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with Nobel economics prize committee members Peter Fredriksson (L) and Eva Mork (R).
Hansson emphasised that the academy would ensure that "all deserving women get a fair chance to be evaluated for the Nobel prize" and said "significant efforts" have been made to encourage nominations of women scientists.

"We made sure that we know about the problem and also about subconscious bias, etc in the [prize-awarding] committees and academies. We've had lectures by sociologists, we've had group discussions, we have put quite a lot of effort into it," he added.

"In the end, we will give the prize to those who are found the most worthy, those who have made the most important contributions.

"No women got the prizes in sciences this year. Last year we had two women laureates receiving the chemistry prize, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, and we had one woman laureate in physics, Andrea Ghez. The year before we had Esther Duflo in economic sciences."

And while more women are being recognised now compared with previous decades, Hansson said the trend was increasing "from a very low level".

"Keep in mind that only about 10% of the professors in natural sciences in western Europe or North America are women, and even lower if you go to east Asia," the physician added. "... It takes time to evaluate, to get nominations in and evaluate for the Nobel prize... You could even say that this is the situation as it was perhaps one or two decades ago, when the discoveries were made."

Hansson said the issue of gender quotas had been discussed about three weeks ago but was dismissed on the basis that it may detract from laureates' legitimacy.

"We have discussed it ... but then it would be, we fear, considered that those laureates got the prize because they are women, not because they are the best. Now, there's no doubt that scientists like Emmanuelle Charpentier or Esther Duflo got the prize because they made the most important contributions," he said.

"We will make sure that we have an increasing portion of women scientists being invited to nominate. And we will continue to make sure we have women on our committees, but we need help, and society needs to help here. We need different attitudes to women going into sciences ... so that they get a chance to make these discoveries that are being awarded."

New Zealand physicist and author Laurie Winkless criticised the academy in a series of tweets on Tuesday. "Distressed but not surprised that the organisation has retained its outdated attitudes," she wrote. "A reminder: if the committee had had their way, Marie Curie would not have received the 1903 physics prize."