The XX Factor

Ooh La Lagarde: Why is everyone so excited by the idea of a lady IMF chief?

Earlier today, Hillary Clinton had this to say, when asked about Christine Lagarde’s candidacy for the top job at the IMF: “Speaking unofficially and personally, I am a strong supporter of qualified women, which she is certainly one, being given the opportunity to lead international organizations.” In dozens of headlines around the web, this has been telegraphed predictably if inaccurately into: “Clinton: US Welcomes Women to Lead the IMF.”

The idea that the United States is beckoning “women”-generically and as a group-to come shepherd the IMF makes for an entertaining mental image, though not a new one. All week, many of the articles about Lagarde’s bid have carried a not-so-subtle subtext of: Let’s get a woman in to clean up that alpha-male-filled ultimate boys club (to quote Marjorie) . Here was former IMF economist Kenneth S. Rogoff in the New York Times : “What’s happened with Strauss-Kahn underscores how great it would be to have a woman in the role.” Even Slate has been in on the action, headlining a piece on Lagarde thus: “Still French, Not Male: Why Christine Lagarde is the best candidate to lead the IMF – for now” and promoting it on the home page like this:  “A perfect new leader for the IMF: Christine Lagarde is experienced. She drives a hard bargain. She’s a she.” (The piece in question- Annie Lowrey’s great article on why Lagarde would be a good choice-actually has little to do with the fact that Lagarde is a she. )

“Let a woman clean up this mess” is of course an increasingly frequent trope of post-crisis press coverage, whatever the crisis. See for examples these two Time magazine covers -the more recent one,  from last year, shows Sheila Bair of the FDIC, TARP chief Elizabeth Warren, and SEC chair Mary Schapiro looking very stern, above the headline: “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street: The Women Charged With Cleaning Up the Mess.” Or see any number of articles about Iceland electing a woman prime minister in the wake of its own financial crisis .

It’s crazy to think that women are intrinsically more scandal-proof than men.  Before you can abuse power you must have power. Women are rarely implicated in scandals only because there are still relatively few women in top leadership positions. That will change, of course; it already is changing. Here, in that spirit, is my nomination for scandalous woman of the week: Elena Ambrosiadou, one of Europe’s richest women, is, according to the Financial Times , accused of orchestrating a corporate spying operation targeting her hedge fund’s top employees. I don’t wish for more women to do unscrupulous and bone-headed things, of course, but if that’s the price of having more women hedge fund managers, I’ll take it.