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Pensions, binders full of women and open enrollment season

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Have You Looked at Your Pension?

I loved the rumble between President Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday night because it may have sent people to check on how their pension accounts were doing. Maybe. Hopefully.

During the debate, the two presidential candidates began sparing about Chinese investments. Then there was an exchange that was both amusing and lesson for us all. Here is, in part, how the brawl went down:

ROMNEY: Just going to make a point. Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust. And I understand they do include investments outside the United States, including in — in Chinese companies. Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: I’ve got to say…

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: You know, I — I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long.

ROMNEY: Well, let me give you some advice.

OBAMA: I don’t check it that often.

ROMNEY: Let me give you some advice. Look at your pension.

Romney’s right. You should have an idea of what’s in your retirement accounts and whether it’s appropriately diversified in various asset classes, including perhaps international companies or investments.

The president is, of course, a bit busy running the nation, but I hope he was just kidding about not checking his retirement plan very often.

So when was the last time you really looked at how you are investing for retirement? And I don’t mean just checking the balance. You should also look to see how you are invested.

Have you looked at your pension?

Binders Full of Women

There’s another upside to the debate. We’re talking about women and the workplace and equal pay.

How we came to talk about flexible work hours for working parents - not just women – and about finding talented women for top positions warrants a backhanded thanks to Romney.

Discussing how he went about hiring qualified women when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney said the following: “And — and so we — 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.”

Romney’s “binders full of women comment may be the buzziest comment from last night’s debate,” wrote Jena McGregor is a columnist for The Washington Post’s On Leadership section. “But the patronizing and tone-deaf gaffe is a lot more than just an Internet meme. It also reveals a lot about why Romney has trouble connecting with women voters, and how he views the issues that affect them.”

By the way, the women’s groups approached Romney before he contacted them, McGregor and others have reported.

“He gave the impression that he thinks such groups hold the keys to special ‘binders full of women’ who can’t otherwise be found through normal human-resources channels such as leadership development programs, succession plans, and internal and external recruiting,” McGregor wrote.

McGregor also pointed out that Romney “dug an even deeper hole for himself when he made the valiant but squirm-inducing remark about flexible schedules.”

Let’s go to the transcript again:

ROMNEY: 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 . . . We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women.

ROMNEY: What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

And McGregor: “A remark that was intended to sound sensitive to women’s issues comes off sounding as though he thinks these tasks—making dinner and helping with homework—are women’s jobs. Can’t men make dinner, and don’t they want flexible hours as well? So it’s only when employers get desperate that they’ll be eager to hire women? What about when they’re looking for the most talented and qualified people to fill leadership roles in a competitive marketplace, and those people just happen to be women?”

It’s important to point out that the first bill Obama signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which addressed the ability of women to sue over pay inequity on their job.

Read about the act.

In the end, Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times television critic, didn’t think either candidate truly addressed in a meaningful way the issue of women in the workplace or equal pay.

“Both men danced around the issue with the Republican and Democratic versions of the gender-gap two-step,” McNamara wrote. “In fact, it is precisely these sorts of arguments — that women require special handling, that they will get married and quit; that they will get pregnant and take maternity leave or that their roles as mothers and wives make them less productive — are some of the reasons that the wage gap exists.”

Amen to that.

What do you think? The Color of Money Question for the Week: How well did the candidates answer the question about unequal pay in the workplace? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. Put “Binders of Women” in the subject line.

Open Enrollment Time

It’s open enrollment time for many employees. That is of course the time workers can make changes to their workplace benefit packages.

Michelle Andrews of CNNMoney.com provides five important things to know about open enrollment trends this year.

Here are a few:

-- More options for family coverage. Outside of the basic selections such as individual or full family coverage, many employers will be offering “employee plus spouse” and “employee plus children,” Andrews reports.

-- Information about your coverage may be easier to understand. This year’s info packet will include simple, consistent summaries of coverage and costs, as required under the 2010 health reform law.

College Can Wait

For last week’s Color of Money question, I asked: “What do you think of high school graduates taking a year off before going to college?”

Here are some of your comments.

“I believe gap years are a wonderful idea,” wrote Ali Kaplan of Austin, Tex. “I would have benefited from seeing a bit of the world or having a job instead of going straight off to college. A gap year is similar to military or civil service in that it allows young people the chance to experience something completely different and grow up a little. During that time, they might develop a clearer picture of what they want out of life or a career, and it certainly gives their brains something to focus on other than academics.”

Cyndi Gacoste of San Diego said that a gap year gives high school graduates a chance to figure out what they want to do in life. She wrote: “They can get a job or volunteer somewhere, and gain valuable work skills other than studying books. These students have been in school for most of their lives without having an idea what life is like outside of the classroom. A gap year will give them the chance to explore other things that a classroom setting isn’t able to offer. Perhaps, they might discover that their dream career may not require a college degree. For those who would still want to attend college, after taking a gap year, they will enter the school knowing what they want to get out of their education.”

Elise Hoffman of Haverhill, Mass., shared her gap year story: “In June 1975, I graduated high school and did not attend college until the fall of 1976,” Hoffman said. “Taking a year off between high school and college in the 1970’s was not what most people did but it was the right thing for me for many reasons. I came from an upper middle class family and I partied hard from the age of 15 to high school graduation. Clearly, I needed to mature and see college for the gift it was and my experiences during the break provided that to me. I was a cocktail waitress in a rock ’n’ roll bar with real saloon doors (fun!). I worked on an assembly line on tiny electronic parts in a factory (so not fun) and at a Burger King (it was ok). I am very grateful to my parents and for the year break; it served to make me cherish my college experience. So, I think that kids should take the time they need and it will serve them well.”

Upcoming Events

--On Saturday, Oct. 27, I’ll be speaking in Detroit at Triumph Church. My keynote is part of a day of free financial workshops open to the public. The theme for the event, scheduled from 8 a.m. to noon, is “If Money Is The Key, Why Am I Still Locked Out?” The church is located at 2670 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit, Mich., 48211. The workshops will include information on budgeting, credit management, retirement, saving and investing. There will also be a special youth track for teens ages 14 to 17. For information and to register, visit the church’s Web site, or call (313) 871-0300 or (313) 874-3724. This is an annual event presented by the Financial Empowerment Ministry of Triumph.

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

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