What is interesting about the women on Prospect’s list of top world thinkers is not just that they have frogleaped their way onto a line-up still dominated by men (the proportion of women on the list has doubled since our last poll in 2008), but also the fields in which they’ve made that jump. Of the 15 female thinkers selected, well over half are known for their work in business, economics or politics—traditionally “male” arenas. Almost a third are economists—a higher proportion than the overall list.
With the eurozone crisis still rumbling on, Christine Lagarde is perhaps the most publicly visible of these. Following her appointment as head of the International Monetary Fund in 2011 she has been heavily involved in negotiating bailout packages for eurozone countries, most recently in Cyprus. Though forceful in her demands for bold and decisive action she has made it clear that austerity programmes should be slowed if growth fails to materialise and called for Greece to have extra time to meet its budget targets. The former lawyer and French finance minister has been outspoken about the urgent need for reform of the financial sector following the crisis, blaming it partly on a testosterone-fuelled banking culture. Lagarde is hugely respected—according to one former IMF chief economist, “at finance meetings all over the world she is treated practically like a rock star.” And Time magazine’s Vivienne Walt asked last month: “If Christine Lagarde can’t save Europe, who can?”
She was joined on Prospect’s list by fellow French economist Esther Duflo, who has also been dubbed an economic “rock star” by enthusiastic colleagues. But away from the economies of the eurozone Duflo specialises in those of the developing world. A professor of poverty alleviation and development economics at MIT, she is known for her hands-on approach. As the debate over the effectiveness of aid became stagnated, Duflo marched out into the field to settle the matter by experimentation—specifically, by conducting randomised control trials. In Hyderabad, for example, she (along with colleague Abhijit Banerjee) set up microloan programmes for half the city, left the other half untouched, and waited to see what the impact was (positive, but not revolutionary, they concluded.) She argues that poverty is really not understood and it is therefore of little surprise that so many policy measures aimed at tackling it have failed. Why, for example, did a man in a Moroccan village who couldn’t afford to feed his family buy a television? “The poor get bored the same as the rest of us,” she said. “Their happiness might be as important to them as their health. That man had bought a television by saving for it for many months; it wasn’t an impulse purchase. We have to take that seriously and ask why.”
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala—another of Prospect’s world thinkers—must be taking notes. The Nigerian finance minister and a former managing director of the World Bank is responsible for developing some of those policies and sees the improvement of infrastructure—possibly through public-private partnerships—as key to transforming African economies. She is seen to be tough on corruption and has taken significant steps to improve transparency and accountability in Nigeria, where government budgets are now published in newspapers so citizens can see how money is being spent.
Representing an entirely different kind of thinker, it is interesting that there is also a much higher proportion of female novelists on the list than overall (when historian Linda Colley made it onto our list of British thinkers in 2004, she put it down to the fact that her writing ventures into “male” arenas—war and imperialism. Had there been more novelists on the list, she suggested, there would probably have been more women). Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy all make an appearance, with only David Grossman holding up the banner for male fiction writers (Andrew Solomon published A Stone Boat in 1994 but is generally known for his non-fiction writing). Despite the recent flurry of interest in Mantel following her double-award winning novel, Bring up the Bodies, and her comments on the Duchess of Cambridge, which bizarrely became front-page news, she was significantly outstripped by Roy, who topped the female vote in 15th place overall—beating all the other novelists. This is an unfair comparison, though, given that Roy is at least as well known for her activism as her writing. She has devoted herself to human rights campaigns since the success of her novel The God of Small Things, which won the 1998 Man Booker Prize, emerging as one of the most vociferous critics of the “new India” and the economic reforms that have made it a showpiece country for developing nations. Amid all of this development, she says, the poor have been abandoned. She has criticised the Indian government on everything from their armed response to Maoist rebels in the jungles (sparked by a dispute over land ownership) to the issue of Kashmiri independence—and has made enemies on both sides of the political spectrum.
Global justice was a key theme on this year’s list of top world thinkers and a special mention should be given to Martha Nussbaum, the political and moral philosopher, who has scored a hat trick by appearing on every Prospect world thinker’s list to date. Nussbaum came in 53rd place in 2005 and dropped to 68th place in 2008—but this year has achieved a revival, ranking 19th place overall and second highest woman. Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, has shifted her focus away from classical philosophy and towards issues of social justice—she was a key figure in reforming the idea of “development,” so that we consider factors other than economic growth. More recently, though, she has been pre-occupied with the issues of gender, sexuality and the legal system. She has examined how emotional reactions—shame and disgust—shape the law (for example, disgust at certain sexual behaviours) and have motivated discrimination against certain groups.
Described by the Boston Globe as “America’s most prominent philosopher of public life,” Nussbaum may well appear on Prospect’s next list of top world thinkers, too. By then, let’s hope, the proportion of women on the list will have doubled again—to 50 per cent.
The 15 women (by ranking)
15. Arundhati Roy, writer
19. Martha Nussbaum, philosopher
24. Anne Applebaum, journalist
33. Hilary Mantel, novelist
35. Zadie Smith, novelist
39. Christine Lagarde, economist
44. Esther Duflo, economist
49. Katherine Boo, journalist
50. Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist
52. Margaret Chan, health policy expert
53. Sheryl Sandberg, businesswoman
58. Theda Skocpol, sociologist
59 = Carmen Reinhart, economist
59 = Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, economist
63. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, political scientist
See the full list of world thinkers here