Image source: Wikimedia Commons
“There are only six countries in the world at this point in time where there is no legal discrimination at all between men and women,” Christine Lagarde, the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund, told the audience at the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City on Tuesday.
Or put another way: Of the IMF’s 189 member countries, nearly 90% have at least one gender-based legal restriction, from limitations on what women can inherit and whether they can borrow money to prohibitions on their ability to take custody of their children. Lagarde’s assessment? “We need to work on that.”
Now in her second term, Lagarde oversees an organization which aims to ensure the stability of the global monetary system, promote international trade and economic growth, and reduce poverty. The IMF wields $1 trillion in lending power for its members.
For Lagarde, empowering women is not just a social imperative: It’s a cause that has the potential to transform the global economy. As inequality rises, the gap between men’s and women’s participation in the workforce is hovering at around 16%, even in advanced economies.
Major economic woes could be lessened by narrowing this gap. “It’s just a no-brainer that economies would grow, productivity would improve, and we would have more stability,” she said.
In an interview with the Guardian in advance of International Women’s Day in March of this year, Lagarde said that some countries could boost their economies by as much as 35% by closing the gender gap in employment. Adding one more woman to a company’s management or board is associated with a boost in return on assets of up to 13%, according to IMF research. Another IMF report concluded that banks are more stable when they have more women on their boards.
Of course, narrowing that gap in a significant way is not an easy task. “It’s a long-standing quest ... and I don’t see a finish line,” she told interviewer Moira Forbes, “but it doesn't make me sad or depressed, because I think that there is there is a lot of inner strength in the women’s movement.”
Lagarde herself is no stranger to a male-dominated workplace, both in her current role and over the course of her career. She previously served as France’s finance minister and was the first woman to hold that position in any G7 country. Before that, she worked her way up the ranks as a lawyer at Baker McKenzie and became the first female chairman of a major international law firm.
She recalled how her mentor, who was Baker McKenzie’s managing partner, would take time each day to call her daughter while remaining “tough as nails” on the job. Lagarde says remembering to think about things that are most important in her life, like her children, has helped her navigate the rooms full of “dark suits” she often encounters. Now she has even made a commitment to not attend meetings where no other woman is present.
Lagarde also recalled advice she received as a young athlete (she was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team): “grit your teeth and smile.” While she acknowledges that the adage still applies in many instances because “nothing comes easy,” she believes that the sacrifices women make in their careers, especially when it comes to children, will eventually pay dividends. “It’s unbelievable the strength that it gives you,” she said.
Her advice for women in leadership positions is twofold. First and foremost, make space for other women. “Make sure that it’s not just about you, that there are other younger women that are also coming up the ranks,” she said, “so that the day when you stop, they are there to also take space.”
And second, Lagarde laid out the three qualities she considers essential in a leader: confidence, energy, and generosity. Confidence comes from risk-taking, Lagarde said, recounting both how she traveled through France on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle at the age of 15 and how she took a major career leap to become France’s finance minister. Energy comes from taking care of the body— exercising and eating well. “You go nowhere without energy,” she said. And generosity comes from selflessness: “If you’re in leadership for yourself, it's only going to take you so far.”
“I would that hope the generosity bucket will survive me and be a bit of my legacy,” Lagarde replied when asked what she hopes what lesson people learn from her career, “making sure that women have a space and have been given the opportunity to thrive.”