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Posted at 07:51 PM ET, 10/17/2012

Women, debates, and Mitt Romney, beyond the binders


I don’t think these binders contain any women, but you never know. (Melina Mara - THE WASHINGTON POST)
Well, now we’ve concluded two debates with female moderators.

And it turns out they were just moderators.

But it was still nice to have them.

I think this is a good framework through which to look at the Binders Full of Women explosion.

A word for the binders:

According to TiVo, the most-watched moment of the whole second presidential debate was the question about inequality for women in the workforce.

The “binders full of women” meme it spawned has gone through several iterations. There’s been a backlash already (these insta-memes are much more insta- than they used to be; back in the days when all we had was wood-burning Twitter, we had to send all our GIFs by pony, and the backlash arrived several weeks later by train) and a bit of a backlash-to-the-backlash.

A great number of the binder jokes are solid gold.

Writing an Amazon.com review of a binder, fritz notes: “I have a lot of trouble getting my women into most binders. It would be very helpful if this was bundled together with a heavy duty three hole punch. And also include some of those little round reinforcements to keep the women from tearing out. Then you could easily load your binder and flip amongst women without all of the mess that ensues when one of them tears loose from the binder.”

But I think, as Amanda Hess suggests at Slate, that their aim is a little off.

Embedded in a number of the binder jokes (many of which are solid gold, if maybe not perfectly aimed) is the complaint that Mitt Romney’s implied attitude that you can reduce the problem of women in the workforce to a series of binders is as misguided as reducing the Internet to a series of tubes. But it’s certainly a start.

The controversial nugget was near the beginning of Romney’s statement:

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.

I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school.

She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

There are a couple of problems with this.

First, the assumption that women are the only people who need flexible workplace schedules so they can do things like see their kids and cook dinner. Of course, men don’t need to go home at seven and cook dinner. A man? Cook dinner and spend time with his family? What is this, 2070?

Indeed, the idea that all of these Having It All questions are somehow exclusive to women is a sign that we still have a ways to go with our basic assumptions. These aren’t women questions. They’re family questions. Ann Romney said it best when she noted that “And if you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men.  It's how it is, isn't it?  It's the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right.  It's the moms of this nation, single, married, widowed, who really hold the country together.”
Moms are always secretly working harder than everyone else, because the people at whom society assumes the buck stops do have to work harder. Or things simply won’t happen.

But things are changing. With every census, the traditional family appears more and more like one of those traditional items that you bring out on holidays along with Norman Rockwell paintings in order to sigh nostalgically. Sometimes the buck really stops with the grandparents. Sometimes it stops with Dad. Sometimes no one is there to stop it at all. And if everyone is as pro-family as they constantly insist, you want a workplace that allows everyone that flexibility. Let the singles — male and female — battle it out until the wee hours of the night. The difference between needing flexible hours and not needing flexible hours shouldn’t be one of gender — it should be one of having dependents who need Dad to come home and make casserole.

Others find troubling this idea that the Qualified Woman is a Snark-like beast that you have to hunt and send out for. On the surface, it sounds bad. But it’s not altogether unfounded in fact. Numerous studies suggest that there is bias against equally qualified candidates. Others note that women are, for whatever reason, not quite so willing as men to toot their horns and fling their hats into the ring and do other figures of speech that are likely to lead to better jobs. So, given that, proactive action on the part of employers makes good sense if you want the best people.

Often all it takes is a little prodding.

You don’t have to mandate federally that businesses hire the best people. If you were to pass a law saying, “Hire The Best-Qualified Person For The Job!” people would look puzzled and ask if you had something better to do.

But really it’s not that simple. It’s hard to work in hostile environments where you keep banging your head against a glass ceiling. And it’s hard to succeed when doing so requires you to make sacrifices not asked of your male peers.

The world is not suffering from a shortage of eligible women. It’s hiring them that’s the trouble. It’s retaining them that’s the trouble. It’s making certain that if ever they earn less it’s because they choose to that’s the trouble.

The ultimate goal is a system where everyone can fall and rise on their merits and by their choices. Women are often the best-qualified people for jobs and having the best-qualified people for jobs is simply in employers’ best interest. How to make this happen is where Romney and most of the Internet differ. Get the economy going first, he suggests. Then employers will be hiring people, let alone women. And that’s a fair point.

But after that? Binders Full Of Women, oddly paternal as they sound, may be a start. But what happens when women get out of the binders and into the offices? And how do you reach the point when they’re the ones flipping through binders of people?

But when you come right down to it, the only thing I didn’t have a problem with in that statement was the binders.

By  |  07:51 PM ET, 10/17/2012

 
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