A star-studded event in Manhattan on Thursday featured a joint interview with Hillary Clinton, an early front-runner in the 2016 US presidential race, and Christine Lagarde, the first woman to run the IMF. 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 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 US 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 US and by 9 percent in Japan.