During the debate, you’ll recall, Mitt Romney said that one reason he was able as Massachusetts governor to recruit women into top roles was that he “recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible,” such as letting them leave at 5 p.m. so they can make dinner and be home with their children.
The parent in question, however, is not a super-mom miffed at Romney’s 1950s imagery while she cleans up toddler messes with one hand and taps away on her BlackBerry with the other. Rather, Nate McKitterick is a Silicon Valley lawyer and father of two school-age children who does most of the dinner prep in his family and has worked 80 percent time at his law firm since 2004, before he made partner.
“This is a family issue,” he says. “As my wife’s spouse, as the person who is sharing her paycheck, as the person who’s helping to raise our children, these are my issues, too.”
Romney’s “binders full of women” comment may have gotten the most attention after the town hall debate. But the snickering about his awkward, and now famous, phrase overshadows the most telling part of the Republican nominee’s response to a question about how to address gender inequalities in the workplace.
“He was trying to be chic and modern, but he sounded unbelievably traditional about men’s and women’s roles,” says Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “It was just a complete generational miscue.”
It also highlighted one of the problems with the ongoing discussion about pay equity, flexible work policies and getting more women into leadership roles. When these topics are positioned as women’s issues, we miss an opportunity to make everyone care more about them. All too often, they get thrown around in campaigns to win the hearts of female voters, or they act as window dressing in corporate human resources materials. President Obama, to his credit, did say in the second debate that “these are not just women’s issues, these are family issues,” following a comment about contraception and child care. If that happened more often, and if we talked more about why they matter to everyone — men and women, baby boomers and millennials — progress might come faster.
For instance, to help close the gender pay gap, policies ranging from more affordable child care to better sick-leave standards may be needed. But it would also help to stop talking about pay equity as just a women’s issue when, at least for dual-income families, it’s also a household concern that affects the choices couples make. When women earn more, it’s easier for men to stay home with the kids, take risks such as starting a business or go back to school for an advanced degree.