More telling than Governor Mitt Romney’s inaccurate “binders full of women” comment during the presidential debate last week, were his comments about workplace flexibility, and, the comments he didn’t make. When asked by voter Katherine Fenton how he planned to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, Romney said, “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.”
In saying that, Romney most likely meant to portray himself as someone who understands the plight of working mothers. But instead he perpetuated an outdated attitude about the workforce, and women’s role in it.
It’s not a matter of “if” we’re going to have women in the workforce, we already do. Women represent more than 46 percent of the workforce. And, more than half of American women who work are breadwinners, contributing at least some part of the necessary income to maintain their households. With more women than men graduating college and holding advanced degrees, we can expect those trends to continue.
Granted, it was Romney’s female chief of staff, not Romney, who raised the issue of making dinner. But it was Romney, who in his efforts to win-over women voters, could have raised the issue that we need flex schedules for parents, not just mothers. Romney could have said he extended flexible schedules to other members of his cabinet, specifically the men, and encouraged them to share in the role of balancing work and family priorities. But he didn’t say that. Romney also could have said what the President said, “These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.” Because workplace equity is an economic issue, and should be a family issue. But Romney didn’t say that either.
According to the management consulting firm McKinsey, in order for the United States to sustain its historic Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of three percent, we need to expand the workforce and increase productivity. Women are key to both. If the U.S. could increase to 84 percent the workplace participation rate of women in each state, it would add 5.1 million women which is the equivalent of three or four percent GDP growth. That’s definitely an economic issue.
And how do we keep women at work? Not by making sure they can get home in time to prepare and serve dinner, but by making sure someone can. That someone might be mom; it might be dad; and it might be affordable help. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey, women, even those with full-time jobs, spend an average of 57 percent more time on household chores than men do and an average of 60 percent more time on childcare. That’s not equity. Working women don’t need a president whose rhetoric supports the same approach to women in the workforce we already have. Working women need a President whose policies support closing the gender gap at work – policies like the Lilly Ledbetter and Fair Pay Acts. And that was the other thing Romney didn’t say in last week’s debate – whether or not he supports those bills.
As we’ve said before, until our politicians stop talking only about working mothers and start talking about working parents, we won’t move the debate forward. Flex time, fair pay, paid sick leave, affordable child care – theses are family issues, not women’s issues. And they’re economic issues too.