Christine Lagarde becomes head of the IMF: Will this inspire future female business leaders?

Christine Lagarde: Image used under licence of MEDEF.

Christine Lagarde has landed the job she so much wanted (and the Europeans wanted her to have) as head of the IMF. If she were a man, then everyone would be discussing whether her professional background will have adequately prepared her for the world’s second most important position.  But she isn’t. So, gender has become an issue. 

Here are the main issues regarding Christine Lagarde’s nomination as Head of the IMF. Until yesterday, she was Finance Minister in a government that has seen the near disintegration of the euro mainly through lack of spending discipline by its members. Her own government has not set a good example. (Non Euro governments such as the UK have not been much better). She has a good deal of experience of working in the USA having spent 25 years in an American law firm (this is a plus) but she is a lawyer, not an economist by training.  The tradition of nominating a European may have to be rethought in future years, though the IMF is concerned with currency, not political weight. For all its problems, the Euro still has a lot of this. These are all very important questions. And yes, she’s a woman. So what?

Christine Lagarde Is she good enough for the job at the IMF?

Christine Lagarde: There are more important questions about her than her sex.

Margaret Thatcher Became British Prime Minister in 1979

Margaret Thatcher was first pesimistic even about her chances to become Prime Minister.

In fact, it could have been worse; it certainly has been in the past. In 1970, shortly before Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, there were only 26 female MPs (4%) in the British Parliament. They were so scarce that much of the debate before the 1979 election than brought her to power centered around whether a woman was up the job of leading Britain. Really! Amazingly, one year before her election, Mrs. Thatcher stated herself that she thought there would never be a female Prime Minister in her lifetime. Mme Lagarde has made no such predictions and her gender is generally mentioned as being a positive step in the right direction, rather than being a handicap. Times have changed.

However, the numbers of women in top jobs can still be depressing. Only 3% of European CEOs and a mere 1 in 10 board members are women. Indeed, this high-profile nomination of Mme Lagarde comes in a year when the European Commission recently brought in a quota that requires companies to promote ladies to their Boards.  Bottom of the class are Italy with 2.1% of female board directors and then astonishingly Portugal with 0.8% of top board seats. Only one woman director can be found in Portugal. Top of the class in Europe is Norway which imposed a quota in 2005 and has seen the number of female board members increase from 21% to 34%.

Female Board Members in the world

Percentage of Female Board Members (Source: Deloittes).

What is surprising in this debate is the number of businesswomen that are against such corrective measures. Patricia Barbizet, General Director of the French group Artemis is fervently against this policy. The Financial Times journalist, Lucy Kellaway, dismissed the possible benefits as having “an extra person to accompany me to the loo.”  Other business women within the European Commission itself have described the policy as being humiliating or degrading.

Female presidents in Europe

Few European countries have had female presidents

Of course, everyone likes to feel that we obtained our position on the basis of merit.  But the fact is that success can be due to a whole range of unrelated elements (birthplace, parents, upbringing etc.). Few people can honestly claim that it was just down to their own hard work and talent in a mythical rags to riches story.  This doesn’t mean that the grass-roots problems of encouraging woman to work their way up the corporate ladder should not be dealt with. However, it will be greatly helped if young woman beginning their careers can look up to some notable examples of others who have fought their way to the top.

Percentage of women in British Parliament in 1970

N° of women / men in British Parliament in 1970

There can be little doubt that Margaret Thatcher inspired a generation of would be female politicians. Today there are 144 female MPs in the UK. This is still only 22% but a vast improvement on 30 years ago. Many of these politicians will have formed their ambitions during the ten years that Thatcher was in office.

Percentage of women in British Parliament in 2011.

N° of men / women in British Parliament in 2011.

Whether they agreed with her ideas or not, she would have been a role model for them and shown that they too could aspire to the highest political jobs in the country.

Despite the fact that today 59% of EU graduates are women they still have problems converting this initial advantage over men into top executive jobs. There can be no question of Christine Lagarde having been nominated on the basis of anything but merit.  She has had a successful business and political career and has the capacity to do an excellent job. With such a high-profile position, combined with this European quota system, aspiring female business leaders of the future may finally find the role models that they need.

A French version of this article “Christine Lagarde au FMI : un modèle pour les futures femmes chefs d’entreprise” has been published in Le Cercle des Echos and can be found on the following link: http://lecercle.lesechos.fr/node/36197

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Mark Thomas

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Filed under Business, France, Politics, Women in Education & Business

2 responses to “Christine Lagarde becomes head of the IMF: Will this inspire future female business leaders?

  1. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: “Talent Management : Financial Times Briefings” by Stephen Hoare | GlobalEd

  2. Pingback: The Riyadh Women’s University: A major step in the right direction | GlobalEd

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