No stranger to being the “first woman to…” many times in her life and career, French lawyer and politician Christine Lagarde has never shied away from any male-dominated, competitive field. If anything, she seems to have been even more determined to go where no woman has gone before – and she has. In 2011 Lagarde brought a woman’s touch to the boy’s club of global finance as the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This, among her many other “first woman to…” accomplishments, makes Lagarde a trailblazer in many male-dominated fields, including politics, law, and global finance.
Although the Parisian-born Lagarde enjoyed an upbringing more privileged than most, she proved to be bright in her own right, moving to the U.S. to study and perfect her English at age 17. After returning to Europe, she became a law school graduate at University Paris X and earned a master’s degree from the Political Science Institute in Aix-en-Provence. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1981, she worked at international law firm Baker & McKenzie as an associate. Eighteen years later, she became the first female chair in the firm’s history.
Lagarde returned to her roots in 2005 after being invited to join France’s government as Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. However, it was her 2007 appointment as Minister of Finance and Economy that was a true game-changer. She not only became the first woman to hold the position in her native France, but in any G8 country, and took the post at a time when fewer than 20% of French MPs were women.
Despite being the only female in many a boardroom and debate, the careful approach was not Lagarde’s style. The poised Parisian is known for her no-nonsense, straight-talking approach. In response to the 2008 global financial crisis, Lagarde famously observed that, “Men, if left to themselves, will usually make a mess of things.” For many, her candidness adds to her appeal. In 2009, prior to becoming the head of the IMF, she was named Europe’s finance minister of the year by the Financial Times and earned international acclaim for her negotiations at various forums, such as the G20.
With the dramatic resignation of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the IMF in 2011, Lagarde began her bid to fill the coveted position. Although considered a front-runner, not everyone was rooting for the “rock star” of the financial world to land the job. Many critics were opposed to yet another French director of the IMF, while others argued that as a woman of affluence, relating to common folk would be a challenge for Lagarde. Another strike against her candidacy was her alleged abuse of power as French finance minister; under her watch, €285 million of taxpayer money was controversially awarded to businessman Bernard Tapie to end a 14-year legal battle.
No stranger to critique or skepticism, Lagarde had dealt with it throughout her career. Before joining Baker & McKenzie, she was told that a woman would never make partner at a French law firm, yet she became the chair of an international law firm. Even during her time in France’s government, she was still considered an outlier; not only were most of her fellow lawmakers men, but many had attended the École Nationale d’Administration, a type of graduate school for the French civil service. Lagarde had applied twice and was turned down both times.
Lagarde persevered against all odds and proved the naysayers wrong with her incredible successes. Currently in her second term as head of the IMF, she often notes how important it is “to not have too much testosterone in one room.” She’s been lauded for her handling of the economic crisis in Europe, most notably Greece’s bailout and the resulting conflicts among Eurozone governments – a crisis she fearlessly stepped in to fix from day one as director of the IMF.
Lagarde’s career successes didn’t necessarily translate over into the mother of two’s personal life, which includes two marriages that ended in divorce. Yet she is still a champion for the potential of women around the world. She is proof that even powerful, hard-working women don’t have to sacrifice family, or anything else, to have a thriving career.
Although it may appear as though there is nothing left to accomplish for the woman who has accomplished it all, Lagarde once told a French news publication that “success is never complete. It’s an endless combat. Each morning one must put one’s capacities to the test once again”—and so she does. We’ll just have to wait to see what boy’s club the trailblazer will add her unique je ne sais quoi to next.
Laura D’Angelo | Contributing Writer
Photo by World Economic Forum