We often believe that you can tell a lot about an organization, private or public, by the management style of its leaders. If that were true, then we would be quick to conclude that the IMF must be a sexist organization.

Irrespective of the rape charges against him, few would dispute the argument that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the once obscure international financial organization, was a womanizer. No wonder then that the New York Times' May 19 article depicted a male chauvinist institution rife with harassment and unfavourable work conditions for women. The truth is, however, the IMF is not misogynistic but its technocratic organizational culture is notably conformist and it has a difficult time recruiting female macroeconomists.

Based on surveys done by the IMF's Independent Evaluation Office, the Fund staff have noted that the organization has a technocratic, hierarchical, and conformist organizational culture. Former managing director Michel Camdessus even once quipped that the IMF staff were like soldiers who should not question the institution's directives when in the field with debtor officials.

One does not need to be a management professor to know that this is not the kind of warm and fuzzy work environment of organic companies like Apple and others, which encourage debate and brainstorming sessions.

Indeed, Fund staff have often complained that working at the IMF is about conforming to how the IMF wants things done, including how to write reports that use the IMF's preferred, watered-down terminology. Moreover, it is notably a stressful work environment, involves extensive travelling, requires an enormous amount of paperwork, and is becoming less financially attractive to work in compared to academia, the private financial sector, and in some cases Western governments. One could argue that these criticisms of IMF work life make the institution less hospitable to women who are more likely to carry the added load of children and home life. Putting this all aside, Fund staff will tell you that the most important criteria for a staff member's success is to be technically strong in macroeconomics.

The IMF is an organization that respects macroeconomic skill sets, first and foremost. Now there are plenty of criticisms one could point out for having the IMF overvalue macroeconomic skillsets at the expense of political-economy, diplomatic, or negotiation skillsets, but this does not make the IMF a sexist organization. The reality is that women are grossly underrepresented in economics departments at the post-secondary level as both students and as professors. The field of economics has historically had difficulty in attracting women and the subfield of macroeconomics is perhaps worst off than microeconomics in achieving gender equality.

So the problem with low female recruitment at the IMF is far from the fault of the organization and says more about how the economic discipline does not attract women to study it. This has encouraged some to undertake gender analysis of international finance and point out the gaps of traditional macroeconomics in understanding the role of women in domestic and the global economy. These specialists are not, however, in economic departments and are usually found in humanities or other social science departments. The fact remains that the macroeconomic discipline has not attracted enough women to achieve gender equality and so this reverberates in the record of Fund recruitment of its staff.

Christine Lagarde, who is not a macroeconomist but a lawyer, had frequently campaigned in the run-up to her election as the current managing director that she would bring more women into the upper echelons of power at the IMF and that her gender would improve the Fund's poor track record at hiring female economists. This is ambitious at best.

Unless Lagarde can encourage more women to study macroeconomics, her attempts to bring women into management will be window dressing. She will soon discover that the IMF is not a sexist institution, but needs to re-evaluate the preferred skill set of its incoming staff and work toward making the organizational culture less technocratic. The benefit of rethinking the IMF's recruitment policies would not only be better for the organization, but arguably make the Fund better at proposing economic policies that governments can sell to their people.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani has a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on international political economy and is full professor and interim assistant vice‑president of international relations at the University of Waterloo.