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
updated 10:47 AM EDT, Sat October 20, 2012
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
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT