When my husband and I watched the second Presidential debate this week, and Republican candidate Mitt Romney described his effort to include women in his former Massachusetts Governor’s cabinet as receiving “binders full of women,” my husband immediately turned to give me a wildly bemused look.
“What the heck is he talking about, ‘binders full of women’?”
Honestly, I’m not entirely convinced that I watched the debate to gain any substantive facts on the candidates’ policies. Rather, I wanted to be in at the ground floor of whatever inevitable internet sensation took off as soon as the words left the candidates’ lips. As I left the office on Tuesday, I dwelt happily on the fact that there were only a few more hours to go before a fresh campaign meme torched my online feeds. It was pleasant to wonder what it would be, and to know that all I had to do to be in on the joke with all the other cool kids was put on my pajama pants and watch ninety minutes of political blather.
The meme was born when the candidates took a question about ensuring women’s equal pay for equal work, since a significant pay gap still exists between male and female workers in the US.
Obama pointed to the first new bill he signed upon assuming office in 2009, which amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to say that those who have experienced discrimination in the form of reduced wages can file a lawsuit up to 180 days after the receipt of any paycheck that shows the unfair pay rate, rather than 180 days after the initial payment decision is made by the hiring manager – basically, making it easier for women to address gender-based paycheck discrepancies in court.
(The recently departed Senator Arlen Specter was one of very few Republicans to support the bill; Romney’s running-mate voted against it).
Romney had a tougher time with his answer, which devolved into a curious narrative on searching out women for his Governor’s cabinet – women he claimed were totally absent from the apparent crop of potential candidates. As Romney told it, he was perturbed by the lack of female applicants, had no idea where to find any, and asked his staff what could be done.
“And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
Romney wrapped up by urging employers to provide more flexible working hours for women, so that they can still be home to make dinner for the kids, and explained that he’s going to bring about such a strong economy that employers will be clamoring to hire women.
Fortunately, because the internet can spot a fruitful meme faster than Republican politicians can come up with new classifications of rape, my husband and I ignored the post-debate pundits to guffaw over the Binders Full of Women tumblr that was crackling even before the debate’s final question.
Memes Photoshopped at the speed of light borrowed enthusiastically from Beyonce (put three rings on it), Lord of the Rings, Dirty Dancing, Trapper Keepers and much more, and, of course, quickly cannibalized other, older memes.
(The red-hot tumblr was apparently started by a 23-year-old woman who had been laid off from her social media manager job that very day. She’s reportedly considering several new offers.)
The internet is already awash in articles.
Some writers immediately bridled at the implication that a male partner couldn’t make dinner, or that women are second-rate employees who can expect to be considered only during boom times.
Others complained that the “binders full of women” moment shows Romney’s dismissive and condescending attitude toward women in general.
Political writer David S. Bernstein of The Phoenix pointed out that Romney’s version of events isn’t even true – a bipartisan coalition of Massachusetts women’s groups, troubled by the lack of women in government in both political parties, assembled the fateful Qualified-Lady Binders themselves, without being asked, and presented them to Romney when he assumed office – a version of events that doesn’t exactly jibe with the former Governor’s contention that he anxiously asked the women’s groups for help in boosting the cabinet’s estrogen levels (especially as Bernstein points out that the overall percentage of female appointees actually declined during Romney’s tenure).
But I like Bernstein’s last line best.
“Note that 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?”
I have to say, in the four and a half seconds that elapsed between Romney’s saying the words and – like a delayed sonic boom – the birth of the meme, I felt a flash of sympathy for the Governor.
As a journalist, I, too, have been faced with the problem of locating qualified women.
This year, one of my editors assigned me a series of articles on entrepreneurship in Pennsylvania with several different angles, including “green” business, socially responsible ventures, and MBA graduates who launched start-ups (you can read some of them here, here and here).
Because I wanted to feature a diverse range of business-people, I discovered that my early research and networking for interviews fell into two waves: one which returned an all-male batch of interview candidates, and a second in which I scrambled to find women to include in the articles.
I could have used those binders.
I followed up with several of my leads to inquire about female founders/executives. They shrugged. One prominent male faculty member of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business told me he couldn’t think of a single woman who would qualify for inclusion in my story.
Fortunately, I followed up with one of his female colleagues, who had many suggestions, despite admitting that women do indeed make up a very small percentage of entrepreneurs in our state.
As I pursued these articles throughout the year and grew my network in the field, I found out a surefire way to discover the female executives.
Ask other female executives. (Perhaps we just subconsciously prefer to refer the press to members of our own gender?)
So my sympathy for Romney was short-lived, especially when I learned that he hadn’t commissioned those binders at all, and that they did not, in fact, lead to better female representation in his administration.
If one little journalist with zero business experience (outside of managing my own career) and a tiny business network can track down several articles’ worth of noteworthy female executives to interview, with nothing but the internet and her cell phone, I refuse to believe that a career businessman and politician couldn’t figure out how to get some ladies on board without the help of his staff and a state-wide coalition of concerned women’s groups.
However, even though I’ve personally discovered that finding qualified professional women is just a matter of some earnest networking, don’t be too hard on Romney – not because his ideas are ok, but because he shouldn’t be singled out as the only one entrenched in them.
The words of that Carnegie Mellon professor, and other prominent businessmen who told me that they didn’t know a single woman who would fit into my articles, are still too fresh in my mind for me to put all the blame on Romney. So I hope the binder meme can be more than a hilarious flash-in-the-pan, and become a chance to consider the fact that not only are women underrepresented in business and politics, but that many people don’t even realize they’re there at all.