Mitt Romney’s Totally Inadequate Answer On Women In The Workforce

CNN’s Candy Crowley conducts the second presidential debate with US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

To reenforce what my colleague Amanda Marcotte wrote at Double X it’s worth emphasizing that jokes about “binders full of women” aside, Mitt Romney’s answer on women’s pay equity last night was pretty amazingly retrograde. The basic issue is that Romney doesn’t believe in pay equity regulation for the general reason that he’s skeptical of business regulation as a whole. He thinks America will be a richer society over the long run if business owners and managers are free to run their companies as they see fit. What Romney would like to say is that this view of his stems from a generally libertarian approach to economic policy and doesn’t reflect any kind of special hostility to women or women’s economic opportunity. That’s why he goes on about the semi-accurate fact that as governor of Massachusetts he made a special effort to recruit women into high office.

The problem is that when he discusses the things that—unlike pay equity legislation—he does think will help women, it turns out that he really does have a retrograde view of women’s role in the economy:

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 they 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 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 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. That’s the net of what’s happened in the last four years. We’re still down 580,000 jobs. I mentioned 3 1/2 million women more now in poverty than four years ago.

What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a — a flexible work schedule that gives women the opportunities that — that they would otherwise not be able to — to afford.

I am favorably disposed toward both full employment and flexible workplace scheduling. But what Romney is saying here is that due to their family responsibilities women are burdened with an inherent disadvantage in the labor market. In conditions of full employment, firms do become desperate for workers and are willing to do things they won’t do in weak labor market. High-margin businesses, for example, hand out raises to competent experienced workers. And firms of all kinds take risks on people they wouldn’t otherwise go for—those who lack formal credentials, those who might have had legal problems in the past, smart people who seem to lack experience, and so forth. Romney’s suggestion is that a woman—at least a woman with a family—is basically like a high school dropout with a felony conviction in his background. A marginally employable worker who’ll get a job if and only if the labor market is super-tight. After all, everyone knows mom needs to be home at 5:00 to start cooking dinner.

But maybe dad should cook dinner!

After all, not every job can be flexible. When I was little my mother worked in the art department for Newsweek and it simply wouldn’t have been possible for someone to perform that job without working very long hours a couple of days a week. Since you want your newsweekly to be reasonably timely, a huge share of the final proofing and layout decisions have to be made as close to the shipping day as possible. That means you work incredibly long hours on the closing days, and compensating time off at other points in the week. If you’re a parent in a job like that, someone else has to take care of your kids when you’re closing the issue. As it happens, my dad wasn’t much of a cook at that point in his life and my recollection is that we would usually order pizza. But one way or another, it was quality family time and cherished childhood memories for me as well as a totally indispensible offloading of childcare responsibilities that were simply incompatible with my mom’s job.

It’s true, of course, that in a full employment economy someone or other would have hired mom for a job that let her be home at 5:00 every day. But not all jobs can be like that. The appropriately flexible positions might have been worse matches for her skills, depressing her earnings power. Or maybe she just really liked worked in the art department at a newsweekly.

Mothers should be able to try to find jobs with flexible schedules, but equality demands that they also be able to take jobs and enter careers with inflexible schedules. You can’t run for president—or anchor the TV news, or run a multinational company—and cook dinner for your kids every night. You need to be able to get childcare and realistically it’s going to be drastically easier if you have a second parent who does his share of the work. A version of Mitt Romney who’s not so instinctively committed to a mom-cooks-every-night vision of family life could have easily tried to integrate this pitch with his later paen to marriage and two-parent households. But instead he offered a vision in which women may be able to get jobs, but will always be playing catch-up in the labor market since they’ll always be engaged in a disproportionate share of domestic work.