Tuesday’s presidential debate yielded one of the more caricatured moments in the presidential race thus far. Katherine Fenton, a 24-year-old pre-kindergarten teacher from Floral Park, N.Y., asked, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify inequalities in the workplace? Specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn.” In his response, Mitt Romney said that “binders full of women” were integral to his hiring practices when he took office as governor of Massachusetts in 2002.
Romney’s focus on the composition of his staff eschewed Fenton’s question. Indeed, while President Obama responded by noting his support for the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and expanded Pell Grants, Fenton has lamented that neither candidate answered her question. Yet the former governor’s claim that he went to his staff and said, “well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?” is a gross simplification of the challenges facing women in the workforce.
That the “binders full of women” comment has gained cultural salience is undoubtedly a consequence of Romney’s response. Yet he reinforced his statement with a critique of the Obama administration: “In the—in the last four years, women have lost 580 thousand jobs. That’s the net of what’s happened in the last four years. We’re still down 580 thousand jobs. I mentioned three and a half million women more now in poverty than four years ago.” Despite his emphasis on job loss, Romney severely misapprehended the facts. Romney’s figure is a full six times the actual number of women that have lost work since Obama took office. Romney also points his finger at the wrong administration. While a disproportionate number of the job losses since the President’s term began have affected women, the recession took its deepest toll under George Bush. Between January 2008 and January 2009, when Obama was inaugurated, 3.26 million men and 1.6 million women lost their jobs.
In fact, economic downturns have a far more nuanced effect on women. The male-dominated industries of construction, finance, and manufacturing are particularly vulnerable in volatile markets, and when these jobs are lost, women often unexpectedly assume the role of household breadwinner. Yet just as Fenton noted, these women often work for wages significantly less than those of their male counterparts. Furthermore, the cuts in government spending that define post-recession policies impact jobs in education, government, and healthcare, fields overwhelmingly populated by women. Of the 2.6 million jobs created since the end of the recession in 2009, 80 percent have gone to men, signaling that women struggle to re-enter the workforce.
Women are not simply struggling to be selected out of a group—or binder full—of qualified applicants for a job. Women outnumber men in the American workforce, but women still receive fewer promotions than men, are less likely to serve in executive positions, and face potentially compromising choices over maternity leave. To tackle these issues is not the preserve of cut-and-dry economic policy. Both Obama and Romney’s answers failed to confront the paradigm shift necessary to fully tackle the issues of work and gender that our nation faces.
Although Romney’s response advocated for more flexible work schedules, changes that promote enlightened notions of family balance and pay equality are beyond the purview of hiring practices. As the children of working mothers, we understand the importance of balancing family and career obligations. Yet a woman’s choice to or not to work has little bearing on her abilities as a mother. Rather, it is ensuring equality of opportunity, and access to contraception, education, family leave, healthcare, and wage equality for both women and men that will lead to a reinvention of our ideas on work and family.
Maura D. Church ’14 is an applied mathematics concentrator in Cabot House. Daniel Z. Wilson ’14 is a history of science concentrator in Currier House.