I just returned from a trip to wonderful Panama organized by the US embassy there with Vital Voices of Panama, an amazing NGO founded by Hillary Clinton that identifies, trains and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe. And though the culture is different from ours, we do have one thing in common: In both countries violence against women is alive and kicking.
And no, I don't distinguish between sexual harassment and physical violence against women. If a man pawing at you and threatening you isn't violent, I don't know what is.
It's fascinating to me, for example, that an organization like the International Monetary Fund, that's supposed to help countries manage their financial systems and innovate in their economies with programs that include women's empowerment initiatives, has a culture that discourages -- that's putting it mildly -- women from truly being innovative and leaders. Instead of being able to focus on their jobs, some women actually avoid wearing skirts in the office because the sexual harassment is so rampant. At the IMF, women fear for their reputations and careers. They're forced to grapple with all sorts of wrenching decisions: What happens if they say no when a superior hits on them? Or more importantly -- what if they say yes? You create a climate of fear when this kind of behavior is condoned.
In Panama I met wonderfully ambitious women who are on the road to economic independence who also fear for their lives. According to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international group of 23 experts on women's rights, between 2005 and 2009 the Panama City special prosecution services had registered 17,067 complaints of violence against women and 1,198 of violence against girls. This is in a city which has a population of just 880,000.
At the same time, another thing that struck me in Panama is that no one tells on anyone. According to Amnesty International, few alleged abusers were held accountable because their victims were unwilling to come forward fearing violence by their husbands, other relatives and even the police. Police can abuse you but no one comes forward because they're afraid of what might happen to their families. Is that any different from Anne Mansouret counseling her daughter, writer Tristane Banon, not to press charges against former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn after he had allegedly attacked her in 2002? At the time, she said she was worried that her daughter's career would suffer from telling the story.
The lesson for women, once again, is this: When you're threatened in this way, you have to tell people. First and foremost, you have to respect yourself. That's what was so glorious about the Sofitel hotel maid who came forward after her alleged attack by DSK. This was her workplace, and her career. He was a customer who was mistreating her. She did what any self-respecting person would do, which is to report the transgression. Brava for her.
This message -- that women in the workplace must stand up for themselves -- is one that Christine Lagarde has been trying to express during her campaign to head the IMF. She's a woman who's ready and willing to step into a situation where criminal and anti-social behavior has been the norm. If anyone can overhaul the landscape, it's a woman.
Of course, it's not surprising that Lagarde has been getting all sorts of criticism for her candidacy. Some people, for example, have questioned whether Lagarde, who is a lawyer by training and not an economist, will bring the same level of prestige to the IMF that others have. I can't help but wonder: Are they really concerned about prestige, or is this just code for the fact that she has estrogen? (It's worth noting that during her five-year reign as the first woman chair of law firm Baker & McKenzie, she doubled the percentage of women partners to 14 percent). Even president Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying. "From what I have heard, everyone thinks Christine Lagarde is a woman with many qualities." Excuse me, monsieur, but what exactly does that mean? And why must her gender even factor in to the equation?
It will be interesting to see what happens with Christine Lagarde and the IMF. Hopefully she will take over, and be a success. It will change how women are perceived in finance, and inspire more women to take the lead -- and speak out when things go awry.