International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde offered a hopeful lesson in how to overcome being the only woman in the room, especially in the high-powered male-dominated world of finance and economics, at the Women in the World New York Summit on Thursday.
Interviewed by historian Niall Ferguson, the former French finance minister and top global corporate law executive admitted, as she looked laughingly at a telling photo of herself surrounded by the nearly all-male IMF board, that women still needed “skin as thick as an old crocodile” to get to the top in what is too often a macho world. “I regret to say that the crocodile skin is unfortunately a sine qua non for a period of time,” Lagarde said when asked about what Ferguson termed the current “nasty macho streak in politics” where men were making the most of their masculinity in sometimes embarrassing way.
“But then I very much hope that we can take off the crocodile skin and be normal human beings without having to shield against horrible attacks, below the belt punches and all this crappy stuff, frankly, that abounds at the moment.
“I believe that diversity and what we represent as human beings should have a seat on a photo like that and at all tables.
“Because if not all views and all sensitivities and what we believe in and the values we have are not represented properly and are not there — we’re just missing half the skills, the talent, the views, the humanity that we see badly need at the moment. So I hope this photo changes.”
Christine Lagarde and the mostly male IMF board. (Courtesy Christine Lagarde)
In a broad discussion with Ferguson ranging from international finance and economics to terrorism, and the refugee crisis — “a humanitarian issue first and foremost but its magnitude gives it an economic dimension” — Lagarde confessed she was concerned about the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union, or ‘Brexit’. “The risk of Brexit is a worry — because it’s uncertainty, it’s apprehension. The outcome of any new regime is totally unknown, and it’s a worry.
“London is a big financial city, has huge links around Europe and the world, and [Brexit] is one of the risks that we have on the horizon.”
Commenting on the Dutch no vote in the latest EU referendum
that has given succor to Brexit campaigners profiting from rising Euroscepticism, Lagarde, a committed Europeanist, said: “I was not encouraged by the vote that took place this morning in the Netherlands!”
An interconnected world “completely without borders” was a key theme hammered home by the world’s top banker as she spoke of geopolitical risks that have “big economic consequences” — from terrorism to refugees, pandemics and conflicts.
Because these phenomena all “ignored borders,” Lagarde said “we simply cannot choose that road which would seem comfortable of retiring behind our borders. We have to face that adversity and that potential for opportunity together.
“What happens in one country is going to have ripple effects elsewhere in the world.”
The IMF used to deal with a world where the Federal Reserve and other central banks had impacts in their countries, but the situation had radically changed over the past year, particularly because of changes in China suddenly having repercussions elsewhere in the world. “The level of risk and the level of interconnectedness is ever so strong … at the same time because of fear, because of uncertainty, because of lack of confidence people are tempted to retire behind their borders and to say: let’s just protect our turf, let’s just be behind our borders, let’s do things at home, and never mind the rest of the world. Well the rest of the world is not at your doorstep it’s with us and we are whether we like it or not massively interconnected.”
The refugee question has personal resonance for Lagarde, especially since the moving experience of visiting the Jordanian Zaatari refugee camp to speak with women whose family members had been killed in the Syrian conflict.
One woman in particular who held her hand for a long time, and had lost her husband, sons and many relatives, left a strong impression on Lagarde, who also admitted to crying when she first saw the photo of refugee Aylan Kurdi, the Kurdish toddler who drowned and was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. “Sometimes when I have my economists putting [out] all these charts and tables and modernizations and heavy duty economic work I always have this woman in the back of my mind.
“She said to me ‘I want to go home’.
“I asked her what home meant for her …and she said ‘nothing’,” Lagarde recalled. “There’s nothing left right no home no walls?
“She said everything’s been destroyed. So I said ‘why do you want to go home?’ She said ‘because I want to touch my country’s soil I want to feel it. I want to be at home.’ And she said to me ‘I hope you’re going to help me.’”
One of the IMF’s missions, alongside the World Bank and other international institutions was therefore to restore stability and help with the economy. “So that once peace has returned — which unfortunately I cannot do much about [as] this is not the mission of the IMF — which is a pre-condition to any economic revival, then clearly it will be our duty together … to actually help it get back on its feet and realize her dream which is to go home touch the ground of Syria and rebuild what spirit she has.”
Christine Lagarde. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
In further remarks on the pressures bearing down on European leaders and societies amid successive waves of refugees, Lagarde went out of her way praise her friend German Chancellor Angela Merkel for taking the decision last year to welcome more than a million people fleeing conflict and economic hardship. “I want to pay tribute to her because I think … she has taken the moral high ground at that time and she was isolated frankly.”
Recounting a dinner meeting she had with Merkel this week, Lagarde argued there could be hidden benefits to taking the humanitarian decision to allow more refugees to settle in countries like Germany.
The German Chancellor explained to her that the tradition of jealous guarding of information dividing the state and federal governments had been largely broken down since the wave of asylum-seekers from Syria, parts of Africa and South Asia began arriving. “Because of the refugee situation suddenly there is a willingness to actually share information and reconcile databases,” Lagarde said. “And the second benefit is a more united European approach to asylum seekers.”
You can watch the entire interview with Christine Lagarde here.