Amanda, I, too, was amazed to watch the phrase “binders full of women” leave Mitt Romney’s mouth at last night’s debate and evolve into full-fledged Internet meme in a matter of minutes. And I was disappointed to see an important conversation about hiring and promoting women in the workforce tabled in favor of nonsensically Photoshopping Carly Rae Jepson into an empty three-ring.
I agree that Romney’s positions on health care, contraception, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will do nothing to help women in jobs across America. Binders stocked with intelligence on top-shelf female candidates, though? I’m cool with those. In a rush to discredit Romney’s position entirely, commenters are strangely spinning his underlying point—when female candidates don’t apply for jobs, employers should find them, and hire them about half the time—as somehow anti-feminist.
Like much of Romney’s stumping, he’s overstated his position here. Romney claimed that when his advisers presented him with few female candidates to stock his cabinet, he asked women’s groups to nominate qualified women, and then he hired them. The Boston Phoenix’s political reporter, David S. Bernstein, counters that the bipartisan women’s group MassGAP assembled these binders of viable female candidates before Romney was elected governor, and then presented them to him unprompted. Still, binders from feminist groups are easy for governors to trash. I’m more interested in what he did with those candidates: Bernstein reports that Romney “appointed 14 women out of his top 33 senior-level appointments,” which he allows is “reasonably impressive.” Romney’s lieutenant governor and chief of staff were both women. That puts Romney’s record on hiring women well above the national average. Binders full of women mean cabinets full of women.
Amazingly, Romney is now being criticized for the idea that achieving parity in political appointments requires effort. Bernstein writes, “in Romney's story as he tells it, this man who had led and consulted for businesses for 25 years didn't know any qualified women, or know where to find any qualified women. So what does that say?” Bernstein tries to make this a Mitt Romney problem, but it is a systemic problem. This Text from Hillary, trotted out in reaction to the binders comment, implies that the existence of a female secretary of state means that Barack Obama’s record on promoting women is more impressive than Romney’s, but it’s not. Only one-third of his high-level team members are women. Surprise: The men who run this country, most of its states, and the majority of its congressional offices have mostly male networks. Seeking outside help to ensure your staff is diversified does not make you a monster with no female friends. Actually, it makes you something of a feminist.
The old boys’ club is firmly entrenched in American politics, and the policies Barack Obama discussed on the stage last night will only go so far toward rectifying the problem. Women suffer from a pay gap, but when it comes to political positions, the self-promotion gap is their biggest barrier to success. Women & Politics Institute Director Jennifer Lawless has found a serious discrepancy among how similarly-qualified men and women in political pipeline industries—law, policy, finance—rate their own viability as candidates. Men are much more likely to consider themselves qualified to run for office than women are. Worse, 60 percent of the men who don’t see themselves as qualified say they’re likely to run anyway. Women need to be asked over and over again to run for office before they begin to consider it. When Lawless talks to these reluctant women, she finds they have three major justifications for not throwing their hats into the ring: family responsibilities, self-doubt, and a lack of encouragement from above. Mitt Romney’s binders can help resolve two of those issues.
I hope the Binders Full of Women meme dies a quick death. I’m not comfortable agreeing with Paul Ryan on feminist policy for any sustained period. And I don’t believe that Mitt Romney is a perfect role model for promoting women: There is evidence that he didn’t stick to his commitment to equitable appointments throughout his term. But I still found it powerful to watch the country’s most prominent Republican businessman and politician stand in front of millions of Americans and announce that stacking the deck with female candidates is not at odds with the capitalist impulse. Policies like Obama’s help level the playing field for female employees in all industries, but diversifying networks in politics and business will require serious effort from individual bosses, too. Finding diverse, qualified candidates takes work, and it is work worth doing, at every level. Our next president will be responsible for appointing the most powerful people in the world. I’d like more of those people to be women.