Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Does Romney 'get' women who work?

By Kathleen Dolan and Jennifer L. Lawless, Special to CNN
October 20, 2012 -- Updated 1447 GMT (2247 HKT)
Jennifer Lawless and Kathleen Dolan question Romney's superficial answers to a question about women's economic equity.
Jennifer Lawless and Kathleen Dolan question Romney's superficial answers to a question about women's economic equity.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Romney's story about finding qualified women shows old ideas on working women
  • Women are ahead in college degrees, many fields. Why not on Romney's radar?
  • They say his view of 'workplace flexibility' is for women to get home to "second shift"
  • Writers: Comments show little understanding, serious thought on workplace equity for women

Editor's note: Kathleen Dolan is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She is the author of "Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates" (Westview Press 2004). Jennifer L. Lawless is associate professor of government and director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. She is the author of "Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office" (Cambridge University Press 2012).

(CNN) -- When Mitt Romney asked his staff why all the applicants for cabinet positions seemed to be men, as he recounted in the presidential debate Tuesday night, he was apparently told that only men had "the qualifications." That is obviously not true.

But this story, as well as, of course, the infamous "binders" comment, provide a good opportunity to talk about women's issues beyond the two perennials, abortion and contraception. As we near the end of 2012, our society still struggles with women's full integration into the workforce and men's full participation on the home front. Indeed, Romney's comments illustrate the continued superficial treatment these issues receive, not only by many political leaders, but also by society as a whole.

Let's look at, for example, some basic -- yet wrong -- assumptions about women's qualifications for high-level positions.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Women's college graduation rates now surpass those of men. For the past decade, women have outnumbered men in law school admissions. More than 50% of those in management and professional specialties are women. And similar trends are evident in secondary education, the professoriate, and college and university administrations. Many Massachusetts women held appropriate credentials.

Politics: Obama, Romney equal on gender pay inequality

So, why didn't these women appear on Romney's radar screen until after the organizers of MassGap supplied the now-derided binders? Perhaps the administration held the common view that women suitable for leadership positions are exceptional or rare. Maybe they thought that women have so many competing obligations that they would not be available for high-level political jobs. Maybe the Romney inner circle recruited only from its own male-dominated ranks. Whatever the reasons, women's full integration into the workforce was an afterthought.

Romney, Obama poke fun at themselves
Abortion and the war for women's votes
Debate answers disappoint questioners
Undecided voter questions debate answer

The "binders" comment also touched on the stickiness of traditional gender roles. Romney said he "recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible." His example of flexibility, however, was allowing his chief of staff to "get home at 5" to make dinner for her family and be with her children. He stopped short of saying it directly, but Romney appears to hold a common belief that women can best be integrated into the workforce if they are still able to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers.

Women's rights organizations fought for decades to dismantle laws that limited women's abilities to compete for jobs. And they succeeded. But informal restrictions still limit women's success, because the progress in the workplace has not been met by any similar shift on the home front.

Politics: Romney in a bind over 'binders of women' comment

A 2011 national survey of thousands of lawyers, business leaders, educators and political activists, for example, revealed that women and men tend to assume traditional gender roles. The report showed that in families where both adults worked (generally in high-level careers), women were roughly six times more likely than men to handle most household tasks, and about 10 times more likely to be the primary childcare provider.

As long as workplace flexibility is viewed as a "female thing," then it's likely that cooking dinner will be viewed that way, too. Romney's casual comment reflects an assumption that women who work outside the home do so as an "add on" to family responsibilities. The "second shift" that characterized the distribution of household labor for women in the 1990s is obviously still alive and well.

In fact, a substantial, multidisciplinary literature affirms the challenges of work/family balance that professional women face. Hundreds of studies have analyzed the programs and policies that work best to ameliorate these difficult circumstances. The mere existence of this burgeoning literature shows that balancing family roles with professional responsibilities is part of the bargain for contemporary women. It's simply the new normal. And it doesn't involve any shift in behavior by men.

Opinion: Romney's empty 'binders full of women'

Finally, Romney's comments embody the faulty assumption that adding some female faces to a group or organization is all you need for full integration and representation. But it's only the first step. Leaders must continue to develop and promote policies that allow women equal access to the workplace.

That a presidential candidate in 2012 can utter such superficial answers to a serious question about women's economic equity and autonomy reveals a lack of serious thought about issues of substantive importance to women. It also demonstrates a lack of commitment to the change necessary to allow women and men to lead fully integrated professional and personal lives.

Poll: What are the most important women's issues?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen Dolan and Jennifer L. Lawless.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT