Influential Women in Social Work From the Last 10 Years

Influential Women in Social Work From the Last 10 Years

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

  1. Brené Brown
  2. Anu Aga
  3. Alexis Jay
  4. Pushpa Basnet
  5. Medha Patkar
  6. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart
  7. Paula Allen-Meares
  8. Miriam Feirberg
  9. Darcy Sterling
  10. Karen S. Haynes

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

  1. #1

    Brené Brown

    1965 - Present (59 years)
    Casandra Brené Brown is an American professor, author, and podcast host. Brown is known for her work on shame, vulnerability, and leadership, and for her widely viewed TEDx talk in 2010. She has written six number-one New York Times bestselling books and hosted two podcasts on Spotify.
  2. #2

    Anu Aga

    1942 - Present (82 years)
    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.
  3. #3

    Alexis Jay

    1949 - Present (75 years)
    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 .
  4. #4

    Pushpa Basnet

    1984 - Present (40 years)
    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.
  5. #5

    Medha Patkar

    1954 - Present (70 years)
    Medha Patkar is a politician and activist working on certain political and social 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..
  6. #6

    Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart

    1953 - Present (71 years)
    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.
  7. #7

    Paula Allen-Meares

    1948 - Present (76 years)
    Paula G. Allen-Meares is an American academic who served as the chancellor of the University of Illinois 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-Meares...
  8. #8

    Miriam Feirberg

    1951 - Present (73 years)
    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.
  9. #9

    Darcy Sterling

    1969 - Present (55 years)
    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.
  10. #10

    Karen S. Haynes

    1946 - Present (78 years)
    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.
  11. #11

    Dorothy Height

    1912 - 2010 (98 years)
    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. Height’s role in the “Big Six” civil rights movement was frequently ignored by the press due to sexism. In 1974, she was named to the National Commission...
  12. #12

    Shoba Raja

    Shoba Raja is an Indian psychologist and known for her work in developmental issues of vulnerable groups 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 she fulfilled a ...
  13. #13

    Kai Cheng Thom

    1991 - Present (33 years)
    Kai Cheng Thom is a Canadian writer and former social worker. Thom, a non-binary trans woman, 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.
  14. #14

    Celia Williamson

    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.
  15. #15

    Shad Begum

    1979 - Present (45 years)
    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.
  16. #16

    Mildred C. Joyner

    Mildred C. Joyner is President of the National Association of Social Workers NASW and former president of the Council on Social Work Education CSWE. Joyner also serves as President of the North America Region of the International Federation of Social Workers IFSW, and remains a member of IFSW’s Executive Committee. She began teaching in in 1979 at West Chester University as professor and served as the director and chairperson of the undergraduate social work department. As a professor she contributed greatly to the university and the community and developed courses that dealt with critical issues in race relations. Retiring from WCU in 2011 she began a consulting firm, MCJ Consultants, that focuses on organizational change and equity in the workplace. Education: BSW from Central State University and her MSW in Planning, Policy, and Administration from Howard University

  17. #17

    Setsuko Thurlow

    1932 - Present (92 years)
    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.
  18. #18

    Moira Gibb

    1950 - Present (74 years)
    Dame Moira Margaret Gibb is a British public servant and social work adviser. After qualifying as a social worker, she worked for the London boroughs of Ealing, Kensington and Chelsea, and Camden, where she served as the chief executive of Camden London Borough Council from 2003 to 2011. Gibb served as a Civil Service commissioner from 2012 to 2016, and chaired the boards of City Lit and Skills for Care until 2022. She led a serious case review into safeguarding at Southbank International School, and into the Church of England’s response to the case of Peter Ball.
  19. #19

    Dianne F. Harrison

    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.
  20. #20

    Joyce Lishman

    1947 - 2021 (74 years)
    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 the University of Oxford. She studied philosophy, politics and economics, graduating in 1968. She then went on to study social studies and social work at the University of Edinburgh graduating in 1970. She 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 s...
  21. #21

    Jorja Leap

    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.
  22. #22

    Mirtha Colón

    1951 - Present (73 years)
    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.
  23. #23

    Ruby Morton Gourdine

    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.

    Academic Website

  24. #24

    Barbara Mikulski

    1936 - Present (88 years)
    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 third-longest-serving female United States Senator, and the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Maryland history.
  25. #25

    Mimi Abramovitz

    1941 - Present (83 years)
    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.

Image Credits:

Top row, left to right: Patricia Hill Collins, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Malala Yousafzai, Shafi Goldwasser, Jennifer Doudna, Fabiola Gianotti, Michiko Kakutani, Lauren Underwood.

Bottom row, left to right: Fei-Fei Li, Esther Duflo, Kathy Reichs, Nancy Fraser, Brené Brown, Judith Curry, Jill Lepore, Zaha Hadid.

Do you have a question about this topic? Ask it here