As a woman, feeling discriminated against at work, no matter your qualifications, can unfortunately be a universal experience. Speaking at the Women of the Year luncheon, titled “How She Did It: A Power Lunch,” IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde broke down the details of her journey to the center of international monetary policy for Glamour‘s Cindi Leive and a variety of guests. Lagarde laid out several pivotal moments in her career when she had to confront the inequality women face simply because of their gender.
Lagarde’s first choice for a career wasn’t international relations—it was anti-death penalty law. “When I returned to France, I decided that I would study political science and law, because what I wanted to do was become a criminal lawyer to fight death penalty cases,” she said. But when it was time to get a job, her experience and passion didn’t matter to the people doing the hiring.
“But when I took my first interview with a big law firm in France at the time, they offered me a great salary and said, ‘Of course, don’t expect ever to make partnership.’ And I said, ‘Why is that?’ And they looked at me with awed surprise and said, ‘Well, because you’re a woman!'” That level of sexism might seem difficult to envision happening in business today, but it crystalized one thing for Lagarde that she shared with the audience. “If you think that you’re going to feel miserable in any particular environment, don’t put up with it—just run. They don’t deserve you. And that’s exactly what I did,” she said to applause.
Another tip from Lagarde based on her career experience? Don’t be afraid to demand what you need to do your job well. “When I was ready for partnership [at the firm I was working at], I had just had my first child. And I decided that he was worth my time as much as some of my clients, and on Wednesdays I decided to take time off.” Despite the fact that her bosses were unhappy to lose her, she was able to convince them. “Resist, and demonstrate that you are actually right,” she said. “You don’t have to do it in a threatening way, but as far as I was concerned, putting numbers on the board was sufficient…I had to wait for one year to demonstrate that, but I then made partnership.”
Simply having a woman in charge changes which issues get given priority. “The IMF…is in charge of helping countries in pretty desperate situations when there’s no financing available,” she said, highlighting that poverty disproportionately affects women and children, especially in nations that are struggling economically. “So why would an institution like that be worried about women? That’s where as the first female managing director…I showed that actually gender issues mattered enormously in the economic field.”