Who runs the economic world?

It might soon be women as a crop of female economists join IMF chief Lagarde in top positions at major financial bodies


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

As the IMF and World Bank met last week in Bali, Indonesia, Lagarde no longer cuts 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 its outgoing chief economist Maurice Obstfeld, making her the first woman to hold the post.

Gopinath, 46, a well-respected 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 longstanding 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 IMF’s traditional stance and Gopinath’s work, saying the Indian- American’s “stellar” reputation was built around “the role of the US 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),” Lagarde 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.”

‘A Man’s Job’
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 PhD 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 advisor to former 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 earlier last week emphasised the importance of visible female role models in top economic jobs.

“(A) finance minister has always been seen as a man’s job,” she told a seminar about empowering women in the workplace on the sidelines of the meeting on the Indonesian holiday island.

“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 US 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 extended 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 previously headed the US Federal Reserve under former US President Barack Obama, making her one of the most influential figures in the world of monetary policy.