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Christine Lagarde Is Changing the Landscape of the Financial Industry for Women

December 6, 2019 Emma Brooks

She’s been called the most powerful woman in the world.

And, Christine Lagarde, who last month left her position as the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to become President of the European Central Bank (ECB), understands the importance of creating gender parity at the top levels of leadership in the financial industry.

According to research by McKinsey & Company, the finance industry has a significant level of underrepresentation of women in the upper levels of management. In fact, while women and men begin their careers at the same levels, making up equal portions of entry-level staff, there is drop-off at higher levels of leadership, and “women account for only 19 percent of positions in the C-suite.”

As a woman in finance, a global leader, and the number-three woman on Forbes‘ World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list in 2018, Lagarde is on a mission to change those statistics.

“Do you know how many women are presidents of banks?” she recently asked during an appearance on 60 Minutes.

The answer: Just two percent.

“This is ridiculously low because in most families, women generally handle the money,” she continued. “And they do that pretty well. There is a clear correlation between good, solid management, good attitude toward risk, and the number of women on board and executive boards as well.”

Lagarde’s ascension to the highest levels of leadership, and her commitment to the advancement of women leaders and equality is impressive, and there is much we can learn from her.

Here are some important takeaways from her recent interview on 60 Minutes:

Real change demands action—not just words.

Lagarde is achieving real results and creating opportunities not only for women in her own organization, but across the globe. Under Lagarde’s leadership, the percentage of women working at the IMF has grown to 44%. And, for the first time in the IMF’s history, Lagarde has tied the loans they award to the ultimate goal of improving conditions for women in countries like Argentina and Jordan.

Small or symbolic actions can have big impact.

For women and members of underrepresented groups, one of the most important first steps to advancement is securing a seat at the table. Lagarde realizes this, and uses her influence to send a clear message for access and equality through one important step: She refuses to attend meetings where she is the only woman in the room.

The issue of the all-male room or meetings issue extends far beyond the conference rooms at financial firms. Studies show that scientific conferences and colloquium talks at prestigious universities are oftentimes filled with panels staffed exclusively by men. The issue is so bad that in June, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis S. Collins, issued a press release calling for an end to the “manel” tradition.

When men and women in the highest levels of leadership take time to call out injustices around representation, we are more likely to rise to the challenge of achieving gender parity.

Avoid the “double bind” of gender stereotypes by embracing who she is and living authentically.

Gender stereotypes create a no-win situation for women leaders.

There’s a common stereotype: Male leaders “take charge.” They are strong, decisive, and assertive, while women leaders “take care.” They are nurturing, emotional and communicative. Here’s where the double bind comes in: When women leaders step outside of this stereotype to “take charge,” they are seen as competent, but disliked. When women stick to the gender stereotype and “take care,” they are liked, but viewed as less competent leaders.

Lagarde never compromises her personal style in an effort to appeal to outdated and harmful stereotypes about women. She’s retained a sometimes aggressive style: For example, she has been known to lock conference room doors, not allowing anyone to leave until they have reached a consensus. And, she describes herself as bossy, and when met with the response that “bossy” was now a “dirty word,” she responded by saying: “I don’t mind. Sometimes you have to be a boss.”

And without a doubt, she is a boss. She has spent her career navigating an industry dominated by men, rising through the ranks to become the first-ever woman to lead the ECB, which is comprised of 19 member states of the European Union; one of the largest monetary areas in the world.

Acknowledge that people with different backgrounds bring diverse ideas and perspectives to the table—and that when their voices are missing, organizations are missing out on a critical piece of the puzzle.

Lagarde acknowledges that many of the decisions being made that impact the future of the global economy are being made by men, and she feels strongly that leadership must be purposeful and thoughtful.

“Market stability should not be the subject of a tweet here or a tweet there,” she said on 60 Minutes. “It requires consideration, thinking, quiet and measured and rational decisions.”

She believes that women are particularly adept at judging risk, a vital ability in the financial industry. Lagarde has famously said if the investment bank Lehman Brothers, responsible for triggering the 2008 financial crisis, had been “Lehman Sisters,” “the whole mess might have been avoided.”

With more educated and driven women entering the workforce today than ever before, and with a great deal of excitement surrounding the benefits of advancing women leaders, we can make gender parity across all industries a reality.

As Lagarde reminds us: “We are all in this together.”

Image Source: International Monetary Fund

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