Lots of women before me could have done the job: Gita Gopinath of IMF
Gopinath has studied at Princeton, taught at Harvard, and is now set to be the first deputy managing director at IMF, guiding world economies amid the devastating blows of the pandemic. Excerpts from an interview.
At 50, Gita Gopinath is set to become the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, working with IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva. Before this, Gopinath was chief economist at IMF and lectured in economics at Harvard. Her work on the impact of the pandemic on world economies has been keenly followed. As a teen, she picked economics in college more or less by happenstance, she tells Sunetra Choudhury.
It’s a bit incredible that women are only now being appointed to these roles. Why do you think it’s taken so long?
I think it’s a reflection of the fact that for the longest time society hasn’t done what was needed, to make sure that women got the opportunities they deserved. We have always been ready for these jobs. It’s just that women didn’t come to mind. You always had male chief economists and they tended to think of other men. I’m glad that did change with me. But there were lots of women economists before me who could have done the job.
There are numerous stories about how hard it is for women in economics…
Even within economics, some fields have a much larger male dominance than others. In macroeconomics, the area that I work in, all the famous economists are men. As a woman you’re constantly being judged on whether you know your stuff. And you do have to work extra hard and always be extremely prepared. Earlier in my career, there were times when people would speak over me, they just didn’t want to listen to what I had to say.
How do you deal with something like that?
I don’t suffer disrespect in any form. I demand that people listen to what I have to say. You have to be your own best advocate at all times and have faith in your own abilities. And you have to always push yourself.
How is your academic life different from your job at IMF?
There are a lot more journalists reaching out. As an academic, I loved having long, very quiet hours of sitting with my books. But this is great too, to have a much more immediate and visible impact on the world.
You studied in Mysore, at Lady Shri Ram (LSR) college and at Delhi School of Economics. What do you think contributed the most to you becoming the top person in your field?
I took my first class of economics at LSR (in 1989) when India had an external account crisis, it had an IMF programme, it went on the path of liberalisation and opening up. Economics became very tangible, very interesting.
Today, the cut-offs are very shocking. In these times, I would never get into LSR. There is a shortage, a supply problem of good institutes where people can get a strong education in fields such as economics and other subjects. This is why people turn to foreign countries.
Also, you have to commit to a subject at 17 or 18. That is a huge commitment. For some people the attraction of overseas universities is that you have the ability to delay that decision by taking a few more classes to figure out what you want to do.
You’ve been teaching at an Ivy League institute. Would you say LSR and Delhi School of Economics are world-class?
I mean, they are very good institutions. When I was teaching at Harvard, I would decide the topics I would cover, based on all the advances that had been made in the previous year. So my syllabus changed every year. Here, the syllabus is set at a much higher institutional level. There is a very particular set of topics covered.
Then of course, there is a difference in terms of being research universities where the faculty does a lot more hard-core research. But, you know, I am very proud of my background at LSR and Delhi School of Economics. They gave me lots of opportunities. We must also remember that these were very affordable universities.
What do you see as the long-term impact of the pandemic on an economy such as India’s?
There hasn’t been a full recovery in the labour and employment markets. And if we have another round with Omicron then that could derail any sense of recovery.
Another big area is education. Children have been out of school for almost two years, and remote learning is not easy. It’s not practical or feasible for large numbers of children. So the impact there has been substantial. Action will have t`o be taken to fix it.
We have to see what happens to investment. To what extent it has recovered is not clear at this point.
I guess one way of measuring things would be to see, two years from now, how India’s GDP compares to what it would have been if there had been no pandemic. And the numbers we have show that there is a substantial gap.