Does Christine Lagarde's sex qualify her to head the IMF?

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is one of two declared candidates bidding to take over as head of the IMF. The other is a man. Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times asks whether Ms Lagarde's gender works in her favour - and whether it should?

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Image caption Ms Lagarde is the second most recognisable French politician on the world stage

When Christine Lagarde launched her bid to be head of the IMF she declared that she would bring to the job all her "experience as a lawyer, a minister, a manager and a woman".

The first three strands of Lagarde's experience are formidable. But what did she mean by the fourth?

What is her experience as a woman? And how does it make her a better candidate for the job?

The most obvious thing that differentiates a woman's experience from a man's is that women bear children.

On two occasions, Lagarde has spent the best part of a year with a growing lump in her abdomen, and then endured the tricky business of getting it out.

For most women this is a very big deal, though it's not obvious how such experience sets anyone up for running the IMF.

As children grow up, however, a mother can find herself doling out pocket money which gets instantly blown on sweets, leaving nothing to spend on a sibling's birthday present.

She then faces the tricky decision of whether or not to bail the child out, and what conditions to impose on any loan extended.

I can see that such an experience could well be relevant to a future head of the IMF, only the difference being one of degree - rather more countries requiring rather larger sums.


Beyond that, I am struggling to see how Lagarde's experience as a woman is going to help. What may assist her, however, is the simple fact of her gender.

It would look good to have a woman running the IMF, especially given the female-unfriendly circumstances under which her predecessor crashed out of office.

Beyond such PR benefits, one could argue that it is her female personality traits, rather than her experience, that may count in her favour.

Women are popularly supposed to be risk-averse, and therefore to make safer leaders. To the extent to which it was Dominique Strauss-Kahn's allegedly wild appetite for risk that brought him down, a woman might seem a better bet for now.

But actually there is no evidence showing that senior women are more risk-averse than men. A recent survey done on a large sample of Scandinavian directors shows the women who get to the top aren't remotely risk-averse. In fact they are more gung-ho about taking risks than their male colleagues.


There is a further piece of research from the US I came across last week that could be used to help Lagarde if she wants to play the woman card.

It suggests that when it comes to working in a team, the more women that are on it, the better it is going to perform.

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Media captionChristine Lagarde: "As a woman I bring a new dimension"

I take this with a pinch of salt, partly because I can't think of any reason to explain it. And had the study shown the reverse - that women reduced the intelligence of groups - it would have been impossible, in this PC age, to find anyone willing to publish it.

Which makes me think that maybe Lagarde's experience as a woman is something rather special after all.

Such is the public desire to see women succeed, that a powerful woman with talent, connections and ambition, has probably had an easier time of climbing the ladder than her male counterparts, and may - with justification - expect that more success is coming her way.

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