Mitt Romney’s revelatory ‘binders full of women’

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” line may be the buzziest comment from last night’s debate. Before the night was over, it had its own Tumblr. It had its own Facebook page. One can only imagine the Halloween costumes and late-night talk show jokes that will result.

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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.

Romney was responding to a question about pay equity, which asked what each candidate would do to ensure equal pay for equal work. He began by telling the story of when he became governor of Massachusetts, and all the applicants for cabinet positions “seemed to be men.”

Rather than say he filled the jobs with highly talented women whom he’d known during his days in the private sector or running the Salt Lake City Olympics, or even that he personally looked for talented women already serving in state and local leadership roles, he said he went several women’s groups and asked them, “Can you help us find folks?”

This is where the offending remark comes in. They came back, he said, with those “binders full of women.”

Romney may be trying to look like he values diversity—and indeed, he should be commended for the fact that 42 percent of the new gubernatorial appointments he made between January 2002 and July 2004 were women. (Some are reporting, however, that the women’s groups approached him in the first place, and that by the end of his term just 28 percent of senior-level appointed positions were held by women.) But in doing so, he makes the promotion of women into leadership roles sound like an exercise in tokenism.

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.

Romney dug an even deeper hole for himself when he made the valiant but squirm-inducing remark about flexible schedules. Because he recognized that flex-time was important to women, he claims, he was able to get more women to be part of his team. (Eureka!) This includes his chief of staff, who needed “to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school.”

Thud.

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?

It didn’t get better from there. Romney talked about a “new economy” that he’d create where employers are “going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women.” Okay. 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?

I’m not saying President Obama’s answer was perfect. He had, of course, an ace in the hole with the first bill he signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which directly addressed the issue of equal pay for women. And with that, he clearly won the exchange.

But even Obama could have done far more with his answer than he did: His health-care detour in the follow-up was a thinly disguised ploy to get in comments about contraceptive coverage. Yes, this issue is important to many women, but it’s only indirectly related to women and work—and far less critical to women’s advancement than issues such as mandatory sick leave, paid maternity leave, elder care solutions and affordable child care, which he brought up only briefly. (By the way, all of these issues would help men in the workplace, too.)

His response about education also missed the point. Studies have shown that women are earning college and graduate degrees at even higher rates than men. The problem is what happens as they move along in their careers and confront family obligations that they are still, rightly or wrongly, expected to handle to a large degree. Without workplace protections to help, many women find no alternative but to leave their jobs, go part time or take less demanding—and therefore, lower paying—positions.

Both candidates could use some help addressing the issues that lead to the pay gap in the workplace. But Obama’s sins were those of omission, while Romney’s now infamous remark sounded patronizing, out of touch and never really answered the question.

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