Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), from left, former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and Thomas Friedman, a journalist for the New York Times newspaper, attend the 5th Annual Women In The World Summit at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center in New York on April 3, 2014.
The highest-profile titans of politics, finance and industry increasingly have this in common: They’re women.
A star-studded event in Manhattan last night featured a joint interview with Hillary Clinton, an early front-runner in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, and Christine Lagarde, the first woman to run the International Monetary Fund. In Washington, Janet Yellen chairs the Federal Reserve and General Motors Co. Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, the first woman to head a major American car company, this week survived a congressional grilling historically reserved for men.
And yet Morgan Stanley (MS) Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat on April 2 lamented the “embarrassment” of data that show women aren’t filling leadership ranks in American companies.
The conflicting evidence is a reminder to some women about a fundamental feature of the path to empowerment: The same mile markers that show how far they’ve come also measure the distance ahead.
“It’s important that we really look at this broadly and say ’Yes, we’ve made progress,’” Clinton said yesterday of improvements for women worldwide in the last two decades. “But we have a long way to go.”
Clinton, 66, and Lagarde, 58, each said women still face obstacles in the workplace, including from men who don’t want to hear about empowering women.
“There is still that element of glass ceiling,” Lagarde said. “Whenever I see that little imperceptible smile, then I say ’Yes, I am the lunatic woman who talks about women.’”
Both women are regarded as potential presidential candidates, Clinton as the U.S. commander in chief and Lagarde in France or as head of the European Commission.
The twinning of the two on a single stage presented a political opportunity for each to validate the other before an audience gathered for the 2014 Women of the World Summit
Aligning with Lagarde “boosts Clinton’s presidential credibility because it normalizes female world leadership,” said Caroline Heldman, the chair of the politics department at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“Lagarde led the charge in response to the 2008 global economic crisis, and her open criticism of major banking institutions may provide Clinton the opportunity to solidify her liberal credentials with Democratic voters who were not convinced in 2008” when she lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama, Heldman said.
When moderator and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman brought up the possibility of Lagarde becoming president of France, Clinton reached over to offer a high-five.
Both emphasized the importance of collecting, analyzing and disseminating data on the ways in which improving the treatment of women can help a nation’s economy.
“For many of us, the argument for women’s equality, for women’s rights, was first and foremost a moral argument and it was a political argument,” Clinton said. “But I think where it is now an economic argument is in many cases a maturing of the argument that women’s rights are human rights but also a very important way of enlisting greater support.”
Lagarde said it’s a “no brainer” for countries such as Korea, Japan, China, Germany and Italy to do more to include women in their economies because of aging populations. An IMF report released in September 2013 estimated that if the number of female workers were raised to the same level as men, it would increase gross domestic product by 5 percent in the U.S. and by 9 percent in Japan.
“If you bring more women to the job market, you create value. It makes economic sense, and growth is improved,” she said. “It’s really important to actually measure and to then identify what policies need to be fixed in order to give access, open up the economy, remove the barriers, and not just the cultural barriers, but the economic barriers as well, the tax barriers.”
Melanne Verveer, a Clinton confidante who is the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security in Washington, said women around the world are faring better in some arenas than others.
“Women have made much progress, but it has been uneven,” she said in an e-mail. “For example, there’s been more progress in access to education and health, less in the economic sphere - - though growing -- and far less in political power, top management or peace processes.”
While Clinton, Lagarde, Yellen and Barra provide prima facie proof that women can make it into the political and economic elite, data suggest the ranks aren’t robust.
Only 4.6 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies are run by women, according to Catalyst, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on empowering women in the workplace. At seventh on the Fortune list, GM (GM) has the highest ranking of any company with a woman at the helm.
The stats are “an embarrassment,” Porat said in remarks to the Japan Society in New York. “This is not the shortcoming of women. We’re talented and smart.”
Even if the ranks are thin, the presence of women in corporate and political leadership roles are an important signal for the future, said Heidi Crebo-Rediker, a former chief economist at the U.S. State Department who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Breaking ceilings at the top, breaks stereotypes,” Crebo-Rediker said, adding German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the list of top female leaders. “These are the kind of role models I am so glad my daughter has to look to today. But it’s obvious we still have a very long way to go if we have to keep asking asking ourselves ’Are they exceptions to the rule?’ We just need a new rule.”
Disparities exist at both ends of the economic scale around the world. In 2012, a Gallup poll for the World Bank showed that only 47 percent of women have a bank account, compared with 55 percent of men. In South Asia, the gap was 16 percentage points, with only 25 percent of women reporting that they had an account.
Yet those engaged in providing international assistance increasingly see the gaps as an opportunity to strengthen developing countries and their financial institutions.
“There is a financial service gender gap, but the recognition of that gap and that women do have a differentiated access has gained much higher awareness, much higher visibility,” said Mary Ellen Iskenderian, the president and CEO of Women’s World Banking.
Commercial banks are trying to bring in more female customers in developing countries, she said, in large part because women repay their loans and tend to leave money in savings accounts once they’ve put it there.
“In the space of women’s economic empowerment, the arc of history is bending in our direction,” she said.
Lagarde, a former finance minister who has said she once walked away from a job interview at a law firm in Paris after being told she would never become a partner because of her gender, now bails out cash-strapped countries from Greece to Ukraine.
On the day of her formal job interview with the 24-member IMF executive board, Lagarde looked only at male faces. Since then, she has made it a goal to increase diversity at the fund, an institution created after World War II and still dominated by men from Europe and North America.
On Capitol Hill this week, where a record 20 of 100 senators are now women, Barra found her gender was no advantage.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, scolded Barra for failing to create a better atmosphere at GM since she took control of the automaker in January.
“Woman-to-woman, I’m disappointed because the culture you are representing here today is the culture of the status quo,” Boxer said.
The spate of reprimands from female lawmakers -- including Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, and Democratic House Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado -- signaled “progress” to some women.
“Observation: gm hearings illustrate how far women have come,” CNN reporter Dana Bash Tweeted earlier this week. “First female automaker ceo getting toughest questions from female lawmakers.”