Business

More women entering top ranks of male-dominated economic world

AFP-JIJI

Who runs the world? It might soon be women as a crop of female economists join IMF chief Christine Lagarde in top positions at major financial bodies.

As the International Monetary Fund and World Bank met this past week in Bali, Lagarde no longer cut quite the same lone figure she once did, now flanked by growing numbers of female finance ministers and economists.

The IMF has just named Gita Gopinath to replace outgoing chief economist Maurice Obstfeld, making her the first woman to hold the post.

Gopinath, 46, an economics professor at Harvard University and co-editor of the prestigious American Economic Review, is likely to bring a fresh perspective to the institution, and potentially challenge long-standing positions. While the IMF has traditionally promoted flexible exchange rates to protect against economic shocks, Gopinath’s work has long advocated the opposite.

Lagarde acknowledged the gap between the fund’s traditional stance and Gopinath’s work, saying the Indian-American’s “stellar” reputation was built around “the role of the dollar in international transactions, and the rigidity that it implies.”

But she said Gopinath would continue that work at the Washington-based IMF. “I am sure that we will be exploring further and deeper those particular (avenues),” she added. “There are not many candidates that I can see at the moment that are prepared to be the currency operators, with the responsibility that comes with it.”

Gopinath is only the latest woman to be appointed to a top economic role, with the World Bank in April naming Yale professor Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg its chief economist. The Greek, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford, became only the second woman to occupy that position.

And in June, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development appointed Laurence Boone, a former adviser to French President Francois Hollande, to its chief economist post.

In Bali, the trend was on display, with female finance ministers, central bankers and economists among the speakers and in the audience at sessions.

Among them was host country Indonesia’s well-regarded Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who emphasized the importance of visible female role models in top economic jobs. “Finance minister has always been seen as man’s job,” she told a seminar about empowering women in the workplace on the sidelines of the meeting. “Battling this perception that this is a male job and for a woman you have to be extra-extraordinary to do this male job . . . that creates a real huge burden.”

The 56-year-old, in her second term as finance minister after working at the World Bank, regularly finds herself delivering speeches on Indonesia’s economy to majority-male audiences.

At the same panel, Lagarde also urged greater visibility for women across the professional world, and referred to the way U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka helped raise the profile of women’s tennis in Japan with her recent win over Serena Williams.

“Suddenly (women’s) tennis became a really powerful sport,” the IMF chief said.

“We need to encourage and celebrate women who win.”

Carolyn Wilkins, senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, said the need for visible role models extends to universities.

“Woman are more likely to choose a major if they know another woman who did the same course,” she told the seminar.

But Wilkins remains relatively alone in the top ranks of the world’s central banks, still largely a male bastion.

Women have held top positions in the central banks of South Africa and Israel, among others, and Janet Yellen headed the U.S. Federal Reserve under President Barack Obama, making her one of the most influential figures in the world of monetary policy.