STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The International Monetary Fund has played a pivotal role in responding to the global financial crisis. The IMF has almost 200 member countries, and the organization helps to keep their economies growing, or at least stable. Christine LaGarde heads the IMF.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
She sat down to speak to us in Washington just after giving a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The person introducing her noted how Christine LaGarde is a former synchronized swimmer. In other words, she knows a thing or two about how to survive underwater. She told me that the metaphor is not that far off: Steering the global economy out of a downturn is a bit like synchronized swimming.
CHRISTINE LAGARDE: The main part of that is actually teamwork, because I believe that there is a lot of teamwork that is required to actually stay on the surface. If you regard the surface as growth, growth has picked up across the world. You could argue that this is reaching the surface.
GREENE: But are we finally getting our heads above water in this country? Last week, the Federal Reserve announced it would continue so-called quantitative easing, pumping money into the economy, keeping interest rates low. The move seemed to indicate that Fed Chair Ben Bernanke might have some doubts about the recovery.
LAGARDE: I don't think he was expressing a doubt about the growth of the U.S. economy, but he indicated that the board wanted to have assurance and reassurance about the sustainability of the recovery.
GREENE: When you say reassurance, would that mean - you know, there have been doubts about whether the unemployment number that's been going down is really solid. I mean, they want to see that sustained. The housing market seems to be improving. They just want more data that suggests that this is going to - it's going to keep moving upwards.
LAGARDE: That's how it comes across, and that's how it's communicated, yes. Employment numbers are difficult to interpret, because you have the unemployment numbers. You have the employment numbers. Within each of those numbers, you have a degree of participation you need to assess. When all numbers go in the same direction, you can be pretty certain of the trend. But I can understand why they would want to have, you know, more recurring numbers that indicate the trend, and that the trend is solid.
GREENE: Let me ask you about the political situation in Washington. You said a long period of uncertainty about whether or not the debt ceiling will be raised - which Congress is going to be debating - whether or not Congress decides they have to shut down the U.S. government. That uncertainty is not helpful to the global economy. What specifically do you mean?
LAGARDE: You know, I took my job in July 2011. And one of the first uncertainty we had to look at was the uncertainty that led to the downgrading of the United States economy. This is not desirable. It can create volatility, instability, and as a result, it should be avoided by any means.
GREENE: So your message to lawmakers is not necessarily picking one side or the other. It's make some sort of decision and move on.
LAGARDE: What players in the economy do not like, what markets do not like, what investors do not like, what job creators do not like is the uncertainty, is being in the dark. They want to understand exactly what is taking place, when it is taking place, what the deal is. And at the moment, the uncertainty is not conducive to that level of trust and confidence.
GREENE: I wanted to shift topics just slightly. Earlier this year, you had some comments about International Women's Day, and talked about the challenges for women in the workforce and around the world. And you said that women are no longer a, quote, "second sex." What gives you the...
LAGARDE: That's a quote from Madame Simone de Beauvoir, right?
GREENE: I mean, speaking about that - and you said that it no longer applies, I mean, that women have gotten to a point where that name doesn't have to apply to them. And I guess I wonder what gives you the confidence to say that today? What positive changes have you seen?
LAGARDE: You know, there have been positive changes, no question about it, but there is still a massive way to go. And that is the case in all economies, and that is certainly the case in some emerging markets and developing economies that I can think of, where women and girls in particular do not have access to education, do not have security, are still targets. I believe that women, as a community, have to continue to argue their case and defend their rights. And I would certainly hope that many, many men around the world rally that cause. Because it's a human cause, not a woman cause.
GREENE: You have reached an incredibly powerful position. Even in such a high position, do you feel like you face some impediments because of your gender?
LAGARDE: Well, if I do, I use humor as a way to deal with it, because I think that is unnecessary and irrelevant and offensive.
GREENE: Madame LaGarde, thank you so much for the time. We really appreciate it.
LAGARDE: Thank you.
GREENE: That's the voice of Christine LaGarde. She heads the International Monetary Fund. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.