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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Over the coming weeks, NPR will be reporting on women and money - how women save, earn and access it worldwide. It's part of an ongoing focus on how women's lives are changing in this century. One person who is keenly invested in moving women up the economic ladder is Christine Lagarde. She is head of the International Monetary Fund, the IMF. The IMF promotes the stability of the global economy through lending, forecasting and technical assistance. Lagarde has been using her position in the last two and a half years to challenge global leaders to focus specifically on women's economic empowerment as a way to bring about growth generally. She joined us from her office at the IMF in Washington, D.C. Good morning.

CHRISTINE LAGARDE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, under your leadership, the IMF commissioned a major study on women in the workforce. It finds that more inclusiveness would bring about greater economic growth. And the reverse of that, you might say, is that those countries that don't make use of their potential female workforce, that they're really missing out economically.

LAGARDE: Um-hum. We found some really interesting numbers. If female were working in the same proportion as men do, the level of GDP would be up 27 percent in a country like India, but also up 9 percent in Japan and up 5 percent in the United States of America. It's not just a moral issue, not just a philosophical issue. It just makes economic sense. You know, I was going to say it's a no-brainer.

MONTAGNE: It would seem so when it's laid out like that, but do you imagine that people think of it ever economically or is it mostly always thought of as just a good thing?

LAGARDE: You know, if it was just a good thing to do, it wouldn't go very far. And I'll give you two examples, the example of Japan and the example of Korea. In both those countries the policymakers have decided to put women at the center of their budget, at the center of their policies going forward. For instance, Prime Minister Abe. He's identified a big-budget item that will go to build child care centers in Japan, which is obviously one of the ways to lower the burden on women and facilitate their access to the job market.

MONTAGNE: Well, part of the issue here about bringing women to the workforce is not so much just bringing them to the workforce because, as your study notes, women are in lots of jobs that are low paid and have very little power. When you talk about management, one thing that's been noted since you were named the head of the IMF is that it itself has a stunningly low number of women in management, high management positions - only about 20 percent there.

LAGARDE: Correct.

MONTAGNE: What made it so hard for the IMF to get women in these higher positions?

LAGARDE: One of the reasons has to do with the population from which management are drawn. Most of them are economists. All of them in those positions are generally Ph.Ds. And when you look for the population of female Ph.Ds. from which you can draw those management skills, there are not that many of them. So, when you start with a relatively small pool, it's probably a little bit harder and it requires much more of an effort. But we do have targets. And we are certainly going to continue to be focused on those.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, something that just struck me when you said that. In a way, we could be saying that there are just not enough women who have the qualifications for being in management. If a man said that, would he get in trouble?

LAGARDE: If a man said that to me, I think he might get in trouble, yes. There are now more and more young, talented female economists. So, if any head of department tells me, no, I'm terribly sorry, I can't hire a woman because I can't find any talented or competent women, I would say rubbish. In the 2013 Economists Program, we hired 51 percent women, 49 percent men. And the reason for that is that we have a draft from all over the world and we've hired, for instance, in that group a good number of Chinese economists - highly qualified, all Ph.Ds. from the best universities of the world. And guess what? They're all women.

MONTAGNE: Well, you yourself must have a great deal of experience with being the only woman in the room. And I gather that was even true when you were being interviewed to take over at the IMF.

LAGARDE: Well, yeah, that is true because the IMF has an executive board, which includes 24 members. And of the 24 people in the room, there were 24 men because the only female executive director was actually away on the very technical work that we do. And I can't do anything about it except talk about it and complain about it when I talk about it because those people are actually appointed by the various countries around the world that comprise the membership of the IMF.

MONTAGNE: You are so confident, that's quite clear. So, did you not run into discrimination...

LAGARDE: Oh, yes, yes, yes, of course. Yeah. When I started my life as a baby lawyer, I was interviewing with all the best firms then at the time, and one of them was, you know, probably the most reputable in France, and told me you can join us tomorrow and be an associate, be given great tasks and great files and great clients to work on, but don't ever expect to make partnership. And I said, you know, why would that be? And they said because you're a woman. And I said really? Well, you won't have me as an associate. And I went to another firm which was great and which was based on respect and on equal opportunity for those who delivered.

MONTAGNE: You were quoted once as saying that the financial mess would not have been such a mess if it had been Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers. What exactly did you mean? And does that apply - what you were saying apply, generally?

LAGARDE: I would repeat that. And I do believe women have different ways of taking risks, of ruminating a bit more before they jump to conclusions. And I think that as a result, particularly on the, on, you know, on the trading floor, in the financial markets in general, the approach would be different. You know, I'm not suggesting that all key functions and roles should be held by women. But if you look at the studies - and there were quite a few that were done by the Financial Times, by the Economist, by various financial observers of the market - it's apparently very clear now that those companies that have several female directors on their board and female in their top management actually do better, are more profitable, and give a better return to their shareholders.

MONTAGNE: Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Thank you so much for joining us.

LAGARDE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey, we asked Christine Lagarde if she'd share a money lesson from her own life, and you can see her answer, and provide a lesson you've learned as well, on our Tumblr. Just search for She Works Tumblr. You'll find it. It's worth the search. Also, thoughts from Olympia Snowe, Neko Case and more. She Works Tumblr. This is NPR News.

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