In last night’s debate, Mitt Romney and President Obama were directly asked, by a young woman, about pay equality. “In what new ways do you intend to rectify inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72% of what their male counterparts earn?”

President Obama answered first, and was able to cite his first major policy win, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Personally, I thought he should have just shouted “Ledbetter! Bam!” and then dropped the mic, but the President and I may have some stylistic differences.

Romney, however, answered with what can be summarized as “I hired some women once.” Bear with me on the long block quote, because I want to take all of this apart piece by piece.

Thank you. An important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are — are all men.” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified?”

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.

I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school.

She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women. In the — in the last [four years] women have lost 580,000 jobs…We’re still down 580,000 jobs. I mentioned 31/2 million women, more now in poverty than four years ago.

So let’s take a look at all of what Romney said in there, even though none of it actually addressed the question of pay equality.

1. Romney’s claim that he requested information on female candidates for Cabinet positions is a lie.
Like most of the Internet, I am just tickled by the new “binder full of women” meme. However, it’s important to note that, however amusing, this is a lie. I mean, he had a binder full of women’s names and resumes, he just didn’t ask for it like his cute anecdote in the debate suggests. What actually happened is that before the 2002 election some women noted the dearth of women in leadership positions in government, and so founded a bipartisan group called MassGAP to attempt to address that disparity. They compiled a binder filled with women who were qualified to be in Romney’s cabinet, and presented that binder to him. To recap: MassGAP, un-prompted by Romney, did the research, compiled the information, and gave him the binder. So his story about being dismayed by the lack of female candidates presented to him and sending out a search party to find a few is, of course, a complete lie.

2. Romney never answered the equal pay question, but he could have answered just fine, apart from that whole Ledbetter thing.
Out of 14 Cabinet positions, Romney appointed six women. These women, though, were appointed to the departments that Romney didn’t really care about and, in some cases, wanted to actually get rid of altogether. None of his female appointees were involved in financial issues, the budget, business development – the things he really cares about. However, it looks as though the Romney administration did pay Cabinet officials pretty equally, regardless of gender, so it’s a little weird that he didn’t mention that fact when talking about all the ladies in that binder. Maybe he didn’t want to go near the question at all because he opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and opposes the Paycheck Fairness Act? Let’s take a look at the positions and genders of Mitt Romney’s Cabinet when he started out in 2003:

  • Commonwealth Development: Douglas Foy
  • Transportation: Daniel Grabauskas
  • Housing & Community Development: Jane Wallis Gumble
  • Environmental Affairs: Ellen Roy Herzfeider
  • Economic Development: Robert Pozen
  • Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation: Beth Lindstrom
  • Business & Technology: Barbara Berke
  • Workforce Development: Jane Edmonds
  • Health & Human Services: Ron Preston
  • Elder Affairs: Jennifer Davis Carey
  • Labor: Angelo Buonopane
  • Administration & Finance: Eric Kriss
  • Veterans’ Services: Thomas Kelley
  • Public Safety & Homeland Security: Edward Flynn

Romney appointed women to 42% of his Cabinet, the same number as his predecessor. The fact that these positions were the ones that Romney openly derided, however, tells us something about how he sees women’s capabilities and roles.

3. If you hire women, you need to allow flexibility so they can get home in time to cook dinner. Men don’t need flexibility, because the women are there to care for the kids, and men aren’t interested in having dinner with their families.
Romney tries to come off as a caring guy quite frequently. Last night, when he talked about allowing flexibility for female employees so that they can balance mothering with working, I’m sure at least a couple people thought to themselves, “well, isn’t that considerate of him.” But these assumptions about what workers of different sexes need are dangerous to both women and men, and they directly contribute to the pay gap.

Parents need to have flexibility in their workplace so that they can care for sick children, deal with half days and schools closing early or opening late because of snow, be home in time for dinner, or make it to their kid’s soccer game. Or the daycare closes at 5 or, more realistically for lower income families, they’re concerned about their children being home alone after school because there’s nobody available to watch them.

But those needs apply equally to both men and women, and fathers should be given the same allowances as mothers to attend to their children’s needs, and to spend time with their families. A more flexible workplace benefits us all, and if men were given the same allowances as their female counterparts to take time for family a host of workplace and societal benefits could result, from less resentment toward mothers who leave early, to a shift in how we as a society think about the role of fathers.

The most damaging part of this assumption that women are going to need to take more time away from the workplace for their children, is that women are therefore less productive or less committed, and thus worth less to the company. This is what reinforces the pay gap – well, we would pay her the same, but he’s here all the time, and she leaves at 4:30 every day to pick Timmy up from daycare, so their contributions aren’t the same. This kind of thinking also allows people to deny that the wage gap exists, by blaming the disparity in income on women’s choices.

As President Obama pointed out in his response to that equal pay question last night, these are not women’s issues, these are economic issues. Women who make less money contribute less to the economy through purchasing, and families with women who earn less money have fewer resources available to put food on the table, to pay for higher education for their children, and to cover their healthcare costs.

Mitt Romney’s condescending answer about the binders full of women – seriously, he worked in business for 25 years and still didn’t know of a single qualified woman to hire?! – betrays his overarching view that women are not equal to men, and shouldn’t be compensated as if they are. After all, the most important thing about having female employees is making sure they still end up back in the kitchen.