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Nobel winners call for gender balance in science

The 2009 Nobel laureate in medicine Elizabeth H Blackburn of the US talks during a joint news conference held by the Nobel Foundation at the Karolinska Institute on Saturday Dec. 6, 2009, in Stockholm, Sweden. Janerik Henriksson / Scanpix / / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The two female winners of this year's Nobel Prize in medicine on Sunday urged scientific institutions to change their career structures to help more women reach top positions.

Americans Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider said as many women as men start out in science but are often unable to advance after having children because of a lack of flexibility.

"The career structure is very much a career structure that has worked for men," Blackburn told The Associated Press at the sidelines of a press conference in Stockholm.

"But many women, at the stage when they have done their training really want to think about family . . . and they just are very daunted by the career structure. Not by the science, in which they are doing really well."

The two laureates spoke to reporters ahead of next week's Nobel Prize ceremony. They will share this year's 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) medicine prize with countryman Jack W. Szostak for discovering how chromosomes protect themselves as cells divide — work that has inspired experimental cancer therapies and may offer insights into aging.

It is the first time two women have shared a single Nobel science prize. Over the years only 10 women have won the medicine prize.

Blackburn said a more flexible approach to part-time research and career breaks would help women continue to advance their careers during their childbearing years.

"I'm not talking about doing second-rate quality science, far from it," she said. "You can do really good research when you are doing it part-time."

Greider added that she especially wants to see measures to get more women onto committees and decision-making positions.

"I think that something active needs to be done to do that because there has been many, many years where there have been women coming in at a 50 percent level, and yet the levels at the upper echelons hasn't really changed very much," she said.

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf will hand over the Nobel Prize in medicine on Thursday along with the awards in chemistry, physics, literature and economics. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented at a separate ceremony in Oslo, Norway.