During the October 16th Presidential debate the candidates, Mitt Romney and Barak Obama, were asked a question about equal pay for equal work. According to the questioner women make 72% of what men make for the same job. During Romney’s response, he made reference to the search he made for qualified women cabinet members when we was governor of Massachusetts. As they searched for qualified women, Romney reported being given “binders full of women.” Later in the same response, Romney also talked about how his female chief of staff required more flexible scheduling. She couldn’t work until seven or eight at night because she had to be home around five to make dinner for the kids. Of course, the “binders full of women” comment has been front and center since the debate. The internet is full of funny pictures and memes about binders full of women. While I found the comment a bit amusing, I think a couple of other things are going on that are worth mentioning.
- We prefer self-centered obfuscation to truth-telling in our political processes. This is true for both political parties and their supporters. I find it hard to believe that people didn’t know what Romney was talking about. Sure, it sounded funny. Yet, we all know that he was referring to a binder full of CV’s or resumes of qualified female cabinet members. We should all chuckle and move on. To act as if Romney meant something else to score political points for our candidate doesn’t help us figure out, as a nation, who we want to lead our nation for the next four years.
- We still have a hard time talking about gender roles in our culture. The question and the candidates’ responses revealed substantive issues relative to women in the workplace, family structure, gender roles, economic stability and so on. Notice we are not talking about any of those things. The more we laugh about binders full of women, the more we miss the larger points.
- Flexibility in the workplace or keeping women in their place? Romney stated that women needed more flexibility than men in the workplace. If you unpack his response, he was saying that men can work harder and longer than women. A man can work until seven or eight at night. A woman can’t because she has to go home and cook and tend to the children.
- Conservative gender roles die hard. Romney holds a deeply conservative, or traditional, view of women’s and men’s roles in the home. He didn’t say that parents need flexibility in the workplace. He said women. He said women because statistically, women who work outside the home still carry the lion’s share of the work load inside the home as well. As a society we have welcomed women into the workplace, but we have not made adjustments in other areas of expectation. Therefore, women with children can’t compete on the same level with men. The same is not true for men. Men with children engage in the work place the way men without children do. That’s because the women in their lives take care of the children, even if they work.
- Why women make less? Following the debate I was talking to a friend who works in the corporate world. He cited the flexibility that women need as the reason they don’t make as much. He reported that he’s never had a male employee that needed to leave early because a kid was sick, a kid needed to picked up from school, or dinner had to be cooked. Yet, this is common among women employees. In that way, it seems like a male employee is more valuable, can work longer hours, and has less absenteeism. Again, as long as household and family responsibilities rest solely, or primarily, on the women, she will be at a disadvantage in the workplace. Until we get to the point where we say, “Parents need more flexibility in the workplace” women will be at a disadvantage.
- Single parent homes. We also know that single parent homes are disproportionately headed by women. If there isn’t a mom and a dad on the scene, it’s usually a mom. The mom has to work to earn a living for the family AND she has to tend to all of the everyday needs of the family (cooking, cleaning, laundry, picking kids up from school, and so on). This means that the single mom will not likely earn as much or advance within the company as a women without kids or a man.
- Moms and Dads need to get it together to stay together. The single greatest predictor of whether or not a child will be in poverty is whether they have a mom and a dad, or live in a single parent home. The best case scenario for kids and moms and dads is a solid and stable family life, where household chores are divided according to gifts not gender, where the workload is shared equally so that each parent can also succeed in the workplace without limitation. Yes, that means sometimes dad needs to leave work early. Perhaps every other time? So, moms and dads need to take seriously the quality of their relationship, especially if they have kids, so that they can build a solid foundation for their family, such that kids can grow and thrive AND they both can engage in meaningful and productive work within the community.
I have laughed as much as the next person when reading about binders full of women. Let’s not let our laughter get in the way of substantive discussions about gender roles, family, marriage, and work. Women should get paid the same amount for the same job. They should also get the opportunity to do the same job in the same way. Women have entered into the workplace and have enhanced the workplace through their gifts. Now we have to make sure they can compete on a level playing field. That means if you have kids – Dad – you have to step up. It’s not fair for working women to carry more or most of the load at home, too.