It's Personal: Romney's comment on hiring women touches raw nerve

The question of women in the workplace was a flashpoint for many debate viewers.
The question of women in the workplace was a flashpoint for many debate viewers. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: October 19, 2012

As a business reporter and columnist, I was shocked - shocked - to hear during the presidential debate that former Massachusetts governor and private-equity bigwig Mitt Romney had to solicit "binders full of women" job candidates just so his state cabinet would not resemble an episode of the misogynistic TV series Mad Men.

Women's groups, Romney said, provided him with said "binders" after he initially was given a list of applicants consisting only of go-to guys. A manhunt, in other words, had to be launched to find a go-to gal for a big old job reporting to the big old guv.

His "binders" comment caused a social-media fury that continued to build momentum Wednesday. Yet none of this should be surprising.

The sad fact is that chicks in charge is about as exotic an idea in 2012 as a woman in the White House or ranking among the 100 highest-paid CEOs in our region.

Only three women made that big-money list in a survey published in these very pages a year ago. And on the very morning before Tuesday's debate, Inquirer readers were treated to a story about how more than one in three companies in the Philadelphia region have no women on their boards.

Women have held the highest political office in Israel, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In America, by contrast, voters have preferred to behave as if the White House had a "men-only" sign hanging in the Rose Garden.

This oppressive eccentricity has played out with similar efficiency in the U.S. business world, where the gender gaps in power and pay remain as stubbornly attached to the status quo as a leech to the U.S. economy.

The evidence of entrenched inequity is visible every day in my own job, both beyond the newsroom and as a member of it.

Funny, though, that it seldom makes headlines as it has this week.

Watching Obama and Romney spar over the topic was cringe-worthy, partly because it rarely gets such high billing. Plus, it was introduced as a question in what had become a verbal gladiator match between the two men vying for perhaps the biggest job in the land.

Obama and Romney were in Thunderdome proximity to each other on a shared floor at the testy, town-hall-style match when confronted with a question about how differently women are treated in the workforce than men.

What ensued: The pair looked and sounded like male anthropologists in Brooks Brothers suits, elucidating the afflictions of a curious, inscrutable species.

That species, of course, being womenwho work.

Romney issued forth his "binders" comment, presenting it as evidence of having assembled a diverse cabinet. Within minutes, though, thousands of people on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere seized on the clunky phrase, like starved castaways stumbling upon a carcass.

My own sleepy Tweet, posted @panaritism, was instantly retweeted, much to my surprise: "Talking pay equity for women in #debate. So, we get to discuss this once every four years, eh?"

Had a silent giant been awakened? Wednesday, as even the male-dominated political press corps played catch-up on the gender angle, I reflected on what could be shared from my own perch.

It is difficult to observe most workplaces these days and conclude anything but this: Men disproportionately run enterprises, promote one another, and more handsomely reward those underlings and compatriots who do not shop in the lingerie department.

Covering the retail sector for five years, here is what a lot of day-to-day reporting looks like, even within an industry geared ostensibly to enticing mostly women shoppers:

When you search for a company's CEO, he's a guy. Look up the board chairman? Same. Chief of operations? Ditto. Track down the player who helped maneuver the last leveraged buyout? Boy, boy, boy.

The power players are exceptionally well-paid grown-up boys. They are the actors, the doers, the ones who set strategy, call the shots, get to drive a company into the ground or turn it around.

The women?

Overwhelmingly, they are the conduits - the underlings or hired guns who shill for the men running the show.

These women (and a smattering of men, to be fair) fill my voice mail and inbox each day with public-relations and marketing pitches for companies or private-equity funds owned by or run by or overseen by men. They are not purveyors of power. They act on behalf of those who exercise it.

On Tuesday night, however, power was in the hands of anyone within reach of a keyboard, the megaphone a Twitter handle or Facebook page. And the pitch was a clear one:

Enough, already, with binders of ladies taking a backseat to it all.


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter.

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