Our list of influential women in social work features those who have been highly cited and searched online over the last 10 years. They include a broad group of academics and practitioners who specialize in areas like social activism in developing countries, mental health in indigenous populations, inequality in women and African Americans, and more.
Top 10 Women in Social Work From the Last 10 Years
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Social workers help with issues such as illness, unemployment, and divorce. They help clients access services such as food stamps, health care, and childcare. Licensed clinical social workers can offer mental health care. Social workers also function as advocates, raising awareness of issues such as gender inequality, domestic and family violence, welfare reform, and the treatment of elderly, handicapped, or minority groups.
The BLS reports that professional opportunities abound in social work. This field currently employs well over 700,000 working professionals, and projects to add roughly 89,200 more jobs over the next decade. At a 12% rate of growth, the social work field will likely grow faster than average relative to all fields between now and 2030. This is particularly promising for women with an interest in the field. According to the Council on Social Work Education, social work is a predominantly female profession. 83% of social workers are women, and 86% of the MSW graduates in 2015 were female.
In fact, because women dominate the workforce, many of the top professional organizations in the field are particularly attuned to the professional concerns and priorities of women in the field. The largest professional association of social workers in the world, the National Association of Social Workers points to its own National Committee on Women’s Issues (NCOWI), which was convened in 1975 to address bias against women both within and beyond the field of social work, and which remains a critical component of the broader association to date. Other critical organizational include the Clinical Social Work Association, as well as the Council on Social Work Education, which supports social work education, and the National Association of Black Social Workers, which “is committed to enhancing the quality of life and empowering people of African ancestry through advocacy, human services delivery, and research.”
The list below celebrates the contributions of scholars, public policy makers, and activists who have played a central role in shaping this important humanitarian field. Included among them is Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a Native American social worker, associate professor and mental health expert who is best known for developing a model of historical trauma for the Lakota people, which would eventually be expanded to encompass indigenous populations the world over. Jorja Leap, an American anthropologist and adjunct professor in the social welfare department at the University of California, Los Angeles, is included for her work as a nationally recognized gang expert. Topping our list is Brené Brown, an American professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host, who holds the Huffington Foundation’s Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work and is a visiting professor in management at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.
Influential Women in Social Work From the Last 10 Years
1965 - Present (57 years)
Casandra Brené Brown is an American research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host. Brown is known in particular for her research on shame, vulnerability, and leadership. A long-time researcher and academic, Brown became famous following a widely viewed TED talk in 2010. Since then she has written six number-one New York Times bestselling books, hosts two podcasts and has filmed a lecture for Netflix.
Anu Aga is an Indian billionaire businesswoman and social worker who led Thermax, an energy and environment engineering business, as its chairperson from 1996 to 2004. She was among the eight richest Indian women, and in 2007 was part of 40 Richest Indians by net worth according to Forbes magazine. She was awarded with the Mumbai Women of the Decade Achievers Award by ALL Ladies League, the all ladies wing of ASSOCHAM.
Alexandrina Henderson Farmer Jay, OBE is a British academic. She is visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde and the independent chair of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection .
Pushpa Basnet is a social worker and the founder/president of Early Childhood Development Center and Butterfly Home, non-profit organizations, in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her organization works to strengthen the rights of children living behind bars with their incarcerated parents.
Medha Patkar is an Indian social activist working on various crucial political and economic issues raised by tribals, dalits, farmers, labourers and women facing injustice in India. She is an alumnus of TISS, a premier institute of social science research in India.
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is a Native American social worker, associate professor and mental health expert. She is best known for developing a model of historical trauma for the Lakota people, which would eventually be expanded to encompass indigenous populations the world over. She is Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota.
Paula G. Allen-Meares is an American academic who served as the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2009 to 2015. She has a background in social work. Allen-Meares was raised in Buffalo, New York. She completed her undergraduate education at SUNY Buffalo, and then undertook postgraduate studies in social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign . While completing her doctorate, she worked for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. She joined the UIUC faculty in 1975, and in 1990 was made dean of the School of Social Work. In 1993, Allen-Mea...
Miriam Feirberg Ikar is an Israeli politician currently serving as the mayor of Netanya, a city in the Central District of Israel. Feirberg is the first female mayor in Netanya and one of the few women who have served as mayors of Israeli cities.
Dr. Darcy Sterling is an American clinical social worker, relationship expert and television personality. She co-owns the New York City-based group practice Alternatives Counseling. Sterling is the host and relationship expert on the E! network series Famously Single, and the former Global Ambassador for the dating app,Tinder. One of the most widely quoted relationship therapists in the country, Sterling frequently contributes expert advise to national outlets including Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Condé Nast, HuffPost, and many more publications.
Karen Sue Haynes is an American academic and college administrator who previously served as the president of California State University San Marcos. She also served as president of the University of Houston–Victoria.
Dorothy Irene Height was an African American civil rights and women’s rights activist. She focused on the issues of African American women, including unemployment, illiteracy, and voter awareness. Height is credited as the first leader in the civil rights movement to recognize inequality for women and African Americans as problems that should be considered as a whole. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years.
Shoba Raja has a highly specialised knowledge and experience of developmental issues of vulnerable groups particularly within the field of disability and mental health. Biography She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Bombay and later with a Masters in Medical and Psychiatric Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. She worked for a number of years as a Medical social worker for various organisations in Mumbai, including “Asha Sadan”, a home for destitute women and children and adoption center, The Spastics Society of India where sh...
Kai Cheng Thom is a Canadian writer and former social worker. She has published four books, including the novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir , the poetry collection a place called No Homeland , a children’s book, From the Stars in The Sky to the Fish in the Sea , and I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World , a book of essays centered on transformative justice.
Celia Williamson is an American University of Toledo Distinguished Professor of Social Work and Executive Director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, as well as researcher and community advocate who seeks to combat domestic human trafficking and prostitution. She was named the 26th most influential social worker alive today.
Shad Begum is a social worker from Dir Lower, Pakistan. She comes from a religious and middle class family. She is the first university-educated female in her family. She says, she always got support from her father, brothers and husband for her social work.
Setsuko Thurlow, born Setsuko Nakamura, is a Japanese–Canadian nuclear disarmament campaigner and Hibakusha who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. She is mostly known throughout the world for being a leading figure of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons and to have given the acceptance speech for its reception of the 2017 Nobel peace prize.
Dame Moira Margaret Gibb is a British public servant and former social worker. Early life and education Gibb studied engineering for two years at the University of Glasgow. She then transferred courses, and studied French and Psychology, graduating with an undergraduate Master of Arts degree. She later studied social work at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with a diploma in social administration.
Dianne F. Harrison is a retired American university administrator and former social worker. She was the president of California State University, Monterey Bay from 2006 through 2012. In June 2012, she became the fifth president of California State University, Northridge, where she retired in January 2021. Previously, she worked for thirty years at Florida State University.
Joyce Lishman the first woman Professor at Robert Gordon University, was a leader in social work education and research. Education and career Lishman was the first pupil from her girls’ high school in Normanton to be admitted to Oxford University, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics, graduating in 1968. She then went to study social studies and social work at Edinburgh University graduating in 1970, and practiced as a social worker in child and family psychology. This experience she built on later in her career by developing a new social work service for children suffering ...
Jorja Leap is an American anthropologist and adjunct professor in the social welfare department at the University of California, Los Angeles . She is also Director of the Health and Social Justice Partnership at UCLA and is a nationally recognized gang expert.
Mirtha Colón is a Honduran-born Garifuna activist and social worker who assists Caribbean migrants in The Bronx and travels widely supporting the issues of HIV prevention, sex education and cultural preservation. In 2012, she was recognized by the New York State Legislature for her service to the African diaspora in the state.
Dr. Ruby M. Gourdine is a member of the School of Social Work faculty at Howard University and has worked has a clinician, administrator, consultant, and researcher in the areas of juvenile justice, child welfare, medical social work, school social work, and social work history. Gourdine has written extensively on child welfare, teenage pregnancy, transracial adoption, females and violence, school social work, and disability content in social work curricula. She has served as principal /co- principal investigator on a number of grants in these area. In 2010, the National Association of Social Workers celebrated Gourdine as a pioneer in social work. Gourdine completed here bachelor's and PhD in at Howard University. She received her MSW from Atlanta University, today Clark Atlanta University.
Barbara Ann Mikulski is an American politician and social worker who served as a United States Senator from Maryland from 1987 to 2017. A member of the Democratic Party, she also served in the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987. Mikulski is the longest-serving woman in the history of the United States Congress and the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Maryland history.
Mimi Abramovitz is an American author, educator and activist. Abramovitz’s work focuses on civil and welfare rights of those living in the United States, especially women. Education Abramovitz completed her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, where she earned a B.A. in Sociology in 1963. She went on to obtain her master’s degree in social work in 1967 and her Ph.D in social work from Columbia University in 1981.