ST. PETERSBURG — Sharing the floor with Russian President Vladimir Putin can test one’s patience. Especially if you’re a woman.
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde was last to speak at the plenary session of Russia’s glitzy economic forum, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, on Friday afternoon, bearing a responsibility she compared to being married to Liz Taylor. “At this wonderful moment, I am the fifth, and incidentally, the only woman,” Lagarde told the large audience of mostly men.
Her signature silver locks flicked across her brow, Lagarde said she felt like the actor Richard Burton, who, as Taylor’s fifth husband, “knew what was expected, but wasn’t sure how to be original.” This invited guffaws from Russia’s political and business elite — and a sideways smirk from Putin. French President Emmanuel Macron, squirming in his chair, seemed hardly capable of suppressing his laughter.
After hours of onstage camaraderie by Putin, Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, the managing director of the IMF finally got her turn.
Lagarde was one of the few women to speak at the event, ostensibly Russia’s answer to Davos, where all but a sprinkling of the 100 or so summits and sessions had an exclusively male lineup. At one panel, entitled “The Future of Journalism,” the two women scheduled to speak didn’t show up at all (One of them was Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who wrote on her Facebook page that she had fallen ill). A single session at the forum was dedicated to women leaders in the Eurasian community.
This is not to say that other global investment forums are espousing the values of gender equality (Davos is notorious for its so-called "manels," panels of all men).
And this is also not to discount the large numbers of women working at the St. Petersburg forum. In fact, wherever there was a flashy display for a Russian company, such as the national postal services, or top lender Sberbank, nearby stood a cohort of young women, smiling in unison and waving their manicured hands at the streams of middle-aged executives passing by. Each company in the convention center had a different look for their group of women, which came with identical outfits, high heels, hairstyle, makeup and even earrings. This led one observer to remark that the women resembled “Stepford Wives.”
One Russian government-run newspaper, the popular Argumenty i Fakty, even published a photo essay of the “Most beautiful girls of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum 2018,” featuring Aeroflot flight attendants in their trademark orange uniform and women in fierce poses at the various parties around the city.
Controversy has tainted Russian business at international forums before. In 2012, a Russian telecom company was booted out of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona for promising “champagne, caviar and a beautiful girl” to visitors who attended their business meetings.
That Lagarde spoke last and that each Russian firm had its crew of women on show is not surprising in Putin’s Russia. After all, this is the leader who bragged to Donald Trump that Russia had “the most beautiful prostitutes in the world,” according to former FBI director James B. Comey — a sentiment Putin also shared with reporters a few weeks earlier.