She’s been the first femme at pretty much everything but “rock star” International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, who will be onstage at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday, has always believed in pushing beyond her own individual career achievements to form collective “conspiracies against the tacit conspiracy against women”.
Sisters are not only doing it for themselves in Lagarde-world, they’re doing it for each other, and if given the opportunity, “doing it all for home, firm and country” – because more women means bigger bottom lines for all. “Inequality is sexist,” the world’s top banker declared last month, noting that the global economy was suffering because women were still not working nearly as much nor on the same terms as men.
So how could they change the status quo? “Seek out support around you,” she advised women trying to enter the job market or secure top-level positions, in an interview with CNN’s Richard Quest. “Because I don’t think changes can be achieved on the stand-alone basis by one’s self only. So reach out. Form coalitions … And use, as much as possible, the research that is available to convince.”
The call to group action is a hallmark of the former synchronized swimming champion, who won a bronze medal in the French National Championship when she was just 15. The Lagarde way also puts a lie to the hoary old stereotype of the career-ascendant woman crushing her gender rivals on the way to the top.
From her positions as the first woman chair of corporate-law giant Baker & McKenzie, then first female finance minister of France, Europe and the G8 and — since 2011 — as the inaugural woman Managing Director of the IMF (confirmed for a historic second term), the trans-Atlantic Lagarde has consistently applied her intellect, charm, and powers of persuasion to a difficult task: convincing powerful men and institutions to put gender equality at the center of their agendas.
Whether it is an almost exclusively-male board meeting at the IMF, the paucity of women at Davos and online — “You’ve heard a lot about the Internet of Things; I think we need an Internet of Women” — or the benefits of getting women into full-time employment, corporate governance and traditional ‘male’ roles, she isn’t averse to chiding.
“Women are no longer the Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir wrote about,” according to Lagarde, and therefore should not be absent or under-represented.
The ubiquity of men in the corridors of power is also unacceptable. “There should never be too much testosterone in one room,” the then-French finance minister famously remarked in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. “In gender-dominated environments, men have a tendency to… show how hairy chested they are, compared with the man who’s sitting next to them.”
In her celebrated interventions regarding the origins of the international financial meltdown and whether things might have been different if women were running the show instead of the bankers’ boys’ club Lagarde commented: “Women inject less libido and less testosterone into the equation” and don’t necessarily project their own egos into making a deal.
“It’s probably overgeneralized what I’m saying and I’m sure there are women who operate exactly like men.
“But in the main … I honestly believe that the majority of women in such positions approach power … in a slightly different manner.”
That alternative style of exercising power was on full display during the Greek debt crisis as it hurtled again towards near-catastrophe in 2015. Lagarde’s IMF stood between two implacable foes in the high-stakes battle between fiscally conservative Berlin and austerity-fatigued Athens, a sudden death game of brinksmanship that almost led to Greece being pushed out of the Eurozone (Grexit) and sovereign default.
Still, the Managing Director, who as an athlete had mastered holding her breath under water, won praise from an unexpected quarter for her cool-headed negotiating style. The former Greek finance minister, firebrand Yanis Varoufakis, admitted post-resignation that he was referring to Lagarde when he said: “there were people who were sympathetic at a personal level, behind closed doors, especially from the IMF.”
For all the accolades and prizes – such as The Financial Times award for best Eurozone Finance Minister – Lagarde, who will be interviewed by historian Niall Ferguson at the Women in the World Summit, has continued to monitor the progress of women around her.
Marie-Monique Steckel, formerly head of France Telecom North America, now President of the French Institute Alliance Francaise in New York, said her long-time friend “is a recognized force at the forefront of the battle for women’s equality”.
“She is a courageous, determined and eloquent voice that is heard worldwide,” Steckel told Women in the World. “People notice when she encourages parity for women in the labor force by bringing attention to issues such as the importance of child care and paid parental leave. As Minister of Finance in France she initiated a truly positive revolution when she was able to pass a law transforming the business landscape by creating a quota of 40 per cent women on company boards”.
Coming from the French system where creches were plentiful and moms regularly worked full-time, the mother of two adult boys was shocked at the harsh conditions for working women scaling the heights of the corporate legal world in the United States. At Baker & McKenzie in Chicago she pushed for flexible parental leave for attorneys, reducing a huge obstacle to women becoming partner.
Anecdotes abound at the IMF’s Washington headquarters about Madame Managing Director’s polite but firm insistence the organization practices what it preaches. Managers are expected to seek out strong women candidates, especially for positions where men have traditionally ruled, such as economists and strategists. Today, thanks to her agitation, gender diversity is embraced as a priority in the research and advice the Fund offers to the world’s economies.
A new study of 2 million firms in 34 European countries, enthusiastically promoted by Lagarde on International Women’s Day last month, found that “increasing female participation improves the bottom line”.
“The more women in senior managerial positions and in corporate boards, the more profitable firms are,” she explained on her blog.
“One more woman in senior management or on a corporate board is associated with 8–13 basis points higher return on assets. High corporate profitability could support investment and productivity — another channel through which more women in the workforce can help mitigate Europe’s potential growth slowdown.”
But increased women’s workforce participation and entry into the upper echelons of corporate power could only become a reality if government policies targeted providing enough childcare, removed the second earner’s tax disincentive for families, and permitted parental leave, Lagarde added.
Under her watch, the IMF has continued its ideological and policy shift first steered by her predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn towards a core focus on inequality. Climate change and gender disparities are also new areas of importance.
After helping save Europe from Grexit and total financial meltdown, Lagarde now faces the complicated question of Britain’s push to leave the E.U., and how that might impact the European and global economy. Her hunch is that the damage could go both ways, making each worse off.
Christine Lagarde will be interviewed by Niall Ferguson at the Women in the World Summit in New York, April 6-8.