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Indian Media, Esther Duflo Is Not ‘Wife of’; She’s a Nobel Laureate in Economics

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Oct 15, 2019

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Image Credit: Ryan Pfluger

Yesterday the Nobel Committee announced the winners for the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics: Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer.

And yesterday, the news was relayed to the world via several major media outlets thusly:

“Indian-origin Abhijit Banerjee, wife Esther Duflo awarded Nobel Prize in Economics” — Hindustan Times

“Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife wins Nobel in Economics” — The Economic Times

“Indian-American Abhijit Banerjee, wife Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer win 2019 Nobel Economics Prize” — FirstPost

“Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife Esther Duflo win Noble prize in Economics” — Business Insider

The reporting choice seems more suited to the age of Marie and Pierre Curie, and yet, here we are in 2019. Yes, Duflo happens to be married to her co-recipient, Banerjee. But contrary to the implication conveyed by mentioning her wife-status in a headline, that is not why she won her prize.

Esther Duflo is widely considered one of the greatest minds in development economics, revolutionizing it by pioneering an experiment-based approach to problems of poverty, such as child health and education access. Her effect, along with the work of Banerjee and Kremer, within development economics is credited for helping to transform the field of economics as a whole, bringing a previously theoretical discipline down to Earth and rooting it in reality. Her influence means that policy is more rooted in scientific data, rather than elite assumptions, about the lives of the world’s poor, and that the impact of policy can be measured. She is the director of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal), a premier poverty research institution. She is a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. She is the youngest recipient in the 50-year history of the Nobel economics prize. 

In other words, Esther Duflo is Esther Duflo. The fact that she is the wife of anyone is incidental to her many achievements.


Related on The Swaddle:

It Took a Nobel Prize for a Female Scientist to Be ‘Notable’ Enough for Wikipedia


One could argue that it’s natural for the media of a recipient’s native country to look for the angle that is catchiest; Banerjee, born in Mumbai in 1961, and educated in Kolkata and Delhi before moving to the U.S. to pursue his Ph.D. at Harvard University, is from India originally — hence, why his name has dominated the headlines here. This does make sense — however, there are many ways to accomplish this angle without reducing Duflo to merely his wife:

  1. mention only Banerjee in the headline
  2. mention Banerjee and “two others” in the headline
  3. mention all three recipients by name in the headline

It’s noteworthy that in France, Duflo’s country of origin, her name naturally dominated headlines, following one of these three conventions. Nowhere did a French headline read “Duflo and husband.” Few global outlets thought it relevant to mention her marital status, let alone that she and Banerjee are married.

In 2019, women’s accomplishments, even at the highest level, are still not their own. The biggest accomplishment Esther Duflo has made, in the eyes of many Indian media outlets, is marrying Banerjee — after which, any subsequent achievements became his, though his, naturally, have not become hers. It’s an experience many women know only too well. In early 2019, for example, author Tabitha King was identified only as the wife of author Stephen King in an Associated Press headline: “Stephen King, wife give $1.25M to genealogical society.”

“The gift was her original idea, and she has a name: TABITHA KING,” Stephen King posted to Facebook at the time. “Wife is a relationship or status,” said Tabitha King in the statement Stephen King shared. “It is not an identity.”

In smaller circles, in the groups that make up our family and friends, women’s accomplishments, big or small, are couched as secondary, as something husbands’ have “let” or “encouraged” them do, pivoting focus to the man’s indulgent support as the real laudable action. What a guy. He deserves a (Nobel) prize.

This mindset may seem backward when set down in cold print but its tangible consequences can be seen at even the highest intellectual levels: Duflo is only the second woman in the history of the economics prize to receive this honor. In the history of the Nobel Prizes more broadly, only 5% of honorees have been women. Until we start viewing women as more than simply the wife of a more important man who deserves to be named first, or solely, we can never hope to view their accomplishments with the same respect — and never hope to see that number rise to 50%, where it should be. The Swaddle wrote in an editorial last week that the Nobel Prize, for this precise gender disparity, is at risk of becoming outdated. Dishearteningly, it looks like it’s right at home in the here and now.

UPDATE: Since publication, The Economic Times has updated its headline to read: “Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer win Nobel in Economics.”

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

  1. Subha Bharadwaj

    Well articulated the feelings of all women achievers, at home or outside!

  2. Susmita Baulia

    As a researcher in the same field as theirs, I have been following their work for many years now. Duflo is a boss in this field, a standalone researcher.
    She has received all the top honours there are for the young and fresh minds in Economics. The amount and quality of research she has accomplished at this age is very rare. It was only a matter of time that she would win the Nobel. Of course, Banerjee and Kremer are well-deserved recipients, but Duflo is Duflo! She has been a role model for many economists, men and women equally, and now she will be one for many more young and budding researchers in other fields as well!

  3. Shobhit Shakya

    I agree that to not include her name in headline is inappropriate. But, to claim that the same (or the opposite) has not been done by French media is untrue.

    thelocal.fr writes “Esther Duflo a high-profile academic feted in the United States and her home country France for her hands-on approach to studying how people can escape the poverty trap, won the prize jointly with her husband and former doctorate supervisor and a third academic colleague from the US”. A photo caption is one of the only two places in the article where the other two names are mentioned and it reads “Esther Duflo, her husband Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer were the joint winners of the Nobel Economics Prize”

    liberation.fr wrote with the headline (translated) “Esther Duflo and two other researchers, including her husband, awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics”.

    lequotidien.lu writes “The Nobel of economics to a trio, including the French Esther Duflo”. The article further mentioned “Esther Duflo, 46, her American Indian husband Abhijit Banerjee and American Michael Kremer”

    There are many other examples.

  4. If the comment is valid, my name is irrelevant

    There is also a more charitable interpretation to these headlines: that Prof. Duflo, as Prof. Banerjee’s wife, is also “one of ours” – which would not bee obvious from her name.

    It does not fully explain/excuse all headlines, but I believe it reflects the sentiments of a vast number of readers, including this one. You may argue that French headlines did not do the same, and that may be because the French mentality is not the same as the Indian mentality.

  5. William Smith

    I would hope you take similar concern to the large number of French newspapers that highlighted Dr Duflo’s win, and her husband ‘not specified’. Of course that doesn’t fit into the modern feminist agenda – especially white feminist agenda. The newspapers of most nations, out of national pride, highlight nobel winners of their nationality. It’s what both the Indian and French newspapers did. It’s no conspiracy. If anything, the French newspapers were more dismissive of her husband. Maybe that’s racism. Oh the intersectionality of it all!

  6. Angela Fisher

    When I write wife next to husband wife doesn’t seem so strong. Not that all relationships have a wife and husband but in relation to this article. then I think about it and the many women I know who have gone by that ‘label’ or title or name and I think in many ways they were in many respects the stronger in the relationship. I think about how I feel when I am refered to as wife and I feel a sort of warmth. Her full name should have been used just as her husbands was. What would have been said if the reporter had written Esther Duflo and husband win Nobel in Economics…

  7. Elizabeth McNally

    I am, as everyone, irate by the “wife” notation. I am also disgusted by the Indian-American classification. Why would his heritage have any bearing on this achievement? The headline is deplorable in its entirety.

  8. Sherna

    Excellent and much needed. I really could not see how it was material to mention her as his wife in a headline. The Indian media is still highly sexist, unconsciously so sometimes despite the large number of women working in it.

  9. Adrian

    I disagree that male/female winners should be 50%, the percentage should instead be based on the achievement of the individual. Maybe that means women get 80%, or maybe it means 20%, either way it should be based on merit, not on the percentage of population who are men vs women.

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