As the news of Abhijit Banerjee winning the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel aka Nobel Prize in Economics broke out across India, it was swiftly followed by an update stating that he will be sharing his Nobel Prize with two other researchers – Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. While Kremer quickly faded into oblivion, Duflo’s name picked up some buzz. It was pretty surprising to see the usually narcissistic Indian media focusing its spotlight on Duflo instead of Banerjee. Uh oh, anyone who regularly follows the #currentaffairs hashtag knows that any woman drawing an extended media coverage all of a sudden is never good news. Needless to say, it wasn’t this time either.
The media made a revelation – Esther Duflo is Abhijeet Banerjee’s wife. Further digging into the lives of these Nobel Laureates also revealed that Banerjee was a joint supervisor of Duflo while she was pursuing her Ph.D. in Economics at MIT in 1999. This nugget of information was pretty explosive. Not in the sense that it exposed a relationship that was covert in any way, but how quickly Duflo was dismantled from the position of a Nobel Laureate to a mere wife. From Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo, she became “Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife wins Nobel in Economics” (initial headline, later changed – The Economic Times 2019). Similar headlines were replicated within a few hours across most of India’s major media houses.
For those of you who might not know, Esther Duflo is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). In her research, she seeks to understand the economic lives of the poor, with the aim to help design and evaluate social policies. She has worked on health, education, financial inclusion, environment, and governance. She’s a professor by designation who received a Ph.D. in Economics from MIT in 1999.
Duflo has received numerous academic honors and prizes and with Abhijit Banerjee, she wrote Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. The book won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011 and has been translated into more than 17 languages. She is the Editor of the American Economic Review, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. By winning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 at 46 years of age, Duflo became the youngest person and the second woman to win this award – an exceptional career spanning over two decades undermined by a single, callous headline – “Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife Esther Duflo win Noble prize in Economics” (Business Insider 2019)
My grievance is not with the issue that she’s been addressed as someone’s wife, even Esther Duflo doesn’t mind being called his wife (Times of India 2019), but that there’s almost a tinge of maliciousness attached to this incidence. When Duflo is addressed as the wife of Banerjee, it is never done as a matter-of-fact. But, almost as if she won the Nobel by association – opportunities were presented to her simply because she happens to be married to a researcher who is obviously more meritorious than her, simply by the virtue of his maleness. This expression of casual sexism in the media translated into two doubts and one cultural consequence. One, that Duflo could never have won the Nobel without her association to Banerjee. Two, the previously student-supervisor relationship between Duflo and Banerjee means that the two of them still aren’t equally worthy of the prize – did Duflo ever research with Banerjee as an equal or did she simply assist him? And the cultural consequence that I’m talking about here is the notorious meme/troll culture which often assumes the role of the devil. Memes started addressing Duflo as ‘bhabhi’ (brother’s wife) to the extent of some of them expressing sentiments along the lines of “socha tha sirf bhaiyya Nobel laayenge, bhaabi bhi nahi” (we thought only our brother is capable of winning the Nobel, not his wife too).
While the trolls had a field day dissecting their bedroom dynamics, tittering at Banerjee’s subservience to his wife (because remember she won the prize too?!), commenting that Bengalis need a foreign wife to win the Nobel (case in point, Amartya Sen) and even digging up photos of Banerjee’s ex-wife! A single headline led to blatant cyber abuse and disregard for the laureates’ personal lives.
Dishearteningly, this means that even in 2019, a woman cannot be truly successful until she marries well. No matter how monumental her achievements might be, it’s not for her to enjoy. Her achievements post-marriage automatically also become her husband’s whereas his own remain untainted by the wife’s claim to owner/partnership. Interestingly, such a demeaning experience isn’t limited to female Nobel Laureates alone. Centuries of a rigorous undermining of women’s achievements have only trained women too well – to be doubtful of our achievements, settle for lesser recognition and pay than our male counterparts, and concede to being addressed as the “missus.” A married woman’s achievements are especially not seen as her own for it is something her husband has “let” her achieve and in an Indian context, in-laws have “encouraged.” A career outside of marriage is seen as an act of benevolence of the husband and in-laws instead of the woman’s natural inclination to be financially independent. We carefully push back the woman’s credibility and celebrate her apparently liberal and indulgent in-laws.
This may seem like a small issue but the consequences of such actions reverberate into shaping our mindsets. Duflo is the youngest PERSON ever to win a Nobel Prize in Economics and until now, only 5% of honorees have been women. So you can imagine the damage that headlines like these do when they choose to discuss a woman’s personal life instead of highlighting such shameful gender disparity in one of the world’s most intellectual and elite circles. It is absolutely necessary that we teach young girls to shape their identities that go far beyond being someone’s wife or partner. Until we ourselves start seeing women as individuals with personal and professional accomplishments, capable and deserving, we allow the everlasting culture of viewing the woman as a man’s property who doesn’t deserve to be named first, or solely. An everlasting culture that has and will keep erasing women’s names and identities.
So it is critical that we ask, “Will the Real Esther Duflo Please Stand Up?” and just so that there’s no confusion, “Esther Duflo the Nobel Laureate, Not the Wife of Abhijeet Banerjee.”