Jan. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Christine Lagarde’s memory of an interview with a law firm in France at the start of her career still stings after three decades.
Lagarde says she was told she would never become a partner because of her gender. “I said, ’Is that the case? Thank you very much.’ I turned around, left and never went back to that firm,” she told students graduating from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government last year.
Now the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Lagarde is in a position to offer women more appealing career prospects at the 188-member global organization, which lends to countries in crisis. After 18 months in the job, she’s finding it’s not easy to shift the gender balance at an institution long dominated by men.
By the fund’s own account, it has some catching up to do: Women at the Washington-based IMF hold about 21 percent of management jobs, less than at any peer institution including the World Bank and the European Commission. A fund report says increasing diversity helps address criticism in a 2011 internal audit that “groupthink” contributed to missing signs of the 2008 financial crisis.
Lagarde participated today at a panel about women in economic decision-making at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where earlier this week she delivered a speech calling on policy makers to “remove obstacles to the path of women.”
Gender diversity and inclusiveness are “important for humanity, and I care about it because it’s important for economics,” she said today. “I hope that I convinced a number of people on Wednesday that it makes economic sense to improve the situation of women.”
She said all people approach issues from their own heritage and upbringing, and hers included discrimination because of her gender.
“Very often as a little girl, then as a young woman, I have suffered my lot of discrimination,” she said. “I was brought up with brothers, I grew up in a boys’ world. You have to elbow your way in. When you come with that sentiment of having been in a minority for a long period of time, then you are much more attentive to minorities.”
Deputy Managing Director Nemat Shafik, who spearheads the fund’s efforts on the matter, said in an interview that the IMF cares “a lot” about gender diversity.
“It’s a key part of our legitimacy,” she said. “We need to reflect our membership.”
To decrease the preponderance of male staff from Europe and North America and better mirror its members, the fund has set targets for women and nationals from underrepresented regions, such as the Middle East and East Asia, for management positions.
That has created resentment among some of the 2,400 employees, who worry about career prospects, according to the fund’s annual diversity report, which cites a 2010 staff survey.
Shafik says she responds to “the grumbling men” by telling them the IMF doesn’t have an affirmative-action program, that promotions are fair and the fund is trying to increase the number of women gradually.
Lagarde, 57, took over an institution in July 2011 reeling from the arrest of predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York on charges including attempted rape, which were later dropped.
In her first video message to staff, Lagarde said the IMF could be enriched “by using diversity as an asset.”
The fund trails seven other multilateral organizations, according to its own data. As of the end of 2011, the World Bank’s share of women in management was 35 percent, the European Commission’s 27 percent, and the Inter-American Development Bank’s 33 percent.
The IMF aims for a 25 to 30 percent range by the end of 2014. It wants half of new recruits at the professional and management level -- which excludes jobs such as secretaries --to be female.
The target is proving difficult for senior positions. While she has said that at equal skill levels she hires women over men, Lagarde chose former Mexican Deputy Finance Minister Alejandro Werner last year as director for the Western Hemisphere department, which monitors nations from Canada to Argentina. Women made up only 5 percent of the candidates, she said.
“I guess economists, it’s a bit like scientists, you have definitely fewer women in that field,” Lagarde said in a November interview in which she discussed efforts to increase opportunities for women at the fund.
A survey of 122 university departments by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, part of the American Economic Association, showed women accounted for 29.3 percent of first-year economics PhD students last year, the lowest rate in 16 years of the survey.
The IMF, created in 1944 to help stabilize the global monetary system, was male-dominated from the start, with just one woman among delegates from 44 countries at its founding conference. Things hadn’t changed much by 2011, when Lagarde says she was the only woman in the room when interviewed by the board; the one female director was absent.
Having her lead the IMF is already a strong signal for diversity, said Rupa Duttagupta, 41, who joined the fund in 2000 and is one of two female economists out of nine in her division.
“For the first time we have a female managing director, that itself is almost like having the first African-American president,” the Indian native said in an interview. “I’m proud that somebody like myself has made it to the very top.”
While goals for women representation in management existed before her arrival, Lagarde has made them a priority. Department heads are now assessed on progress against benchmarks, including diversity. Under her tenure, the share of women managers has risen to 21.6 percent in December from 21.1 percent a year ago.
Yet key departments, such as Europe, which oversees bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal, remain under male leadership. According to IMF data, 12 women have been recruited at the management level at the fund in the five years through April, compared with 39 men.
The IMF diversity council said in its report that since budget constraints limit adding staff, more measures may be needed, including “ways to enhance the pipeline for promotions” to reach the 2014 targets. As French finance minister, Lagarde supported a law requiring quotas for women on corporate boards.
The idea of quotas at the fund is controversial, including among women, said Samar Maziad, 36, an economist in the capital markets department. Some women think such measures are needed to get to a “critical mass,” while others say they may hurt their authority, she said.
“I happen to be in the second camp,” said the Egyptian native in an interview. “If you have accountability you don’t need the formal quota.” She joined the IMF in 2006 and says current efforts to promote diversity come across as more serious.
“You can sense a lot more commitment to that, especially when it comes to women economists,” she said. “Now there is also more emphasis on inclusion.”
The fund is trying to improve communication about its policies, with brown bag discussions and workshops. A recent session on work-life balance attracted men as well as women, Shafik said.
Programs to help employees with work and family responsibilities have been implemented, from on-site day care to compressed work schedules that allow two days off a month.
At the entry level for economists, the fund is hiring more women, who accounted for 48 percent of appointments in the last fiscal year. It must work on retaining those who plan to have children, said Lagarde, who has two adult sons.
“We have to be very attentive to their situation and their problems and make sure there’s no discrimination against them as a result during that very sensitive period,” she said.
Part of the success is beyond the fund’s control. Asked what she tells young women to attract them to the fund, Shafik said she describes it as one of the most interesting institutions to work for. She also had a bit of advice for a student in Beirut who inquired about work-life balance.
“I said ‘I have five kids and my life is sometimes chaotic. I have a very good husband, so that helps. So pick a good husband and come to the IMF.’”
--With assistance from Jennifer Ryan in London. Editor: Gail DeGeorge, Mark Rohner