Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Binders full of women, empty of ideas

By Nathan Rothwell

Romney's gone viral (again). Just not in the way he wants.
Those in the market of turning soundbites into Internet memes were not disappointed by last night’s presidential debate.

President Obama and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, squared off in a town-hall style debate on Tuesday where they fielded questions from the audience. Both were asked by a young woman how their respective administrations would tackle inequalities in the workplace – specifically, the fact that women on average make only 72% of what their male counterparts earn.

Both candidates gave wildly different answers. For his part, President Obama mentioned the very first bill he signed into law upon becoming President in 2009; the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which gives women full opportunity to sue their employers if they experience undue discrimination. As Obama explained, before the Act passed women who were being unfairly paid had only 180 days to discover the discrimination and file a lawsuit. Even if they had no way of discovering the discrimination until after this 180-day period, they were out of luck. The Act signed by Obama allowed for a new 180-day period to begin each time a woman received a paycheck that unfairly paid her lower wages based solely on her gender. 

While Obama directly answered the question of unequal pay by referencing the Lilly Ledbetter Act, Romney dodged it almost entirely when given a chance to respond. Instead, he revealed that he initially couldn’t find enough capable women to serve in his Cabinet upon becoming governor of Massachusetts in 2003, and in doing so coined the phrase “binders full of women”:
“…I said, ‘Well gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified? And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.
As the New Yorker put it, Romney’s “binders full of women” phrase provoked instant fascination with debate-watchers nationwide. Facebook groups, Tumblrs, and Twitter accounts devoted to Romney’s inartful phrase captured the attention of thousands, and could very well spell doom for Romney in the polls. Yet as much fun as it is to poke fun at the imagery, Romney’s answer should sound alarms among voters for two important reasons.

First, Romney’s answer in no way addressed the issue of equal pay for equal work, or jobs for women in general. Staffing his cabinet with capable female administration members is all well and good, but Romney’s actions did little for the rest of the women in his state. Romney also went on to say that he offered flexible schedules for his female staffers so they could be home for their families – again, commendable, but his actions began and ended with only the women with which he surrounded himself. And at the end of the day, Romney offered no thoughts on how he’d ensure women are paid fairly in this country.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Romney’s story about the “binders full of women” wasn’t even true. David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix injected some important context into Romney’s bizarre story:
“What actually happened was that in 2002 -- prior to the election, not even knowing yet whether it would be a Republican or Democratic administration -- a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts formed MassGAP to address the problem of few women in senior leadership in state government. There were more than 40 organizations involved with the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus (also bipartisan) as the lead sponsor. 
They did the research and put together the binder full of women qualified for all the different cabinet positions, agency heads, and authorities and commissions. They presented this binder to Governor Romney when he was elected."
In other words, Romney did not go to Massachusetts womens’ groups in search of capable administration members – the women’s groups came to him. In Romney’s entire business career before taking political office, not only did he apparently not cross paths with any capable women, he had no idea where to look for them. And once he was rescued by womens’ groups who actually did the research on his behalf, he tried to take credit for inspiring their research in the first place.

And so, while it appears Romney has binders just full of women at his disposal, nowhere in those binders are any ideas of how he would promote equality in the workplace. Perhaps, quite like his tax plan, he intends to wait until after the election to give us any details. 

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