When President Obama and Governor Romney were asked how each candidate would combat wage discrimination against women, Romney opened with the binder-remark-that-would-spawn-a-thousand-memes! Ok, maybe this was a coping mechanism to not deal with the truly scary platform that included gems like: a lack of support for the Ledbetter act that gives women a way to sue for lost back wages; a threat to cut contraceptive coverage and end Planned Parenthood funding; and to deny that there is a right to choose enshrined in our laws. But if we focused on the other subtle messages in the candidates’ answers, we see some disturbing ideas about women in the workforce. Let’s review some of the statements made:
1) Women work when it doesn’t interfere with childcare
Romney: “I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible.”
This was in reference to need to give his female staff members with kids the ability to go home on time. Sounds like a good employer, making allowances for employees with children, right? EXCEPT THAT HE LINKS THIS TO WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE.
Problem #1: This makes the assumption that he had no fathers on staff that wanted to see their kids before bedtime. Or that this was a bad thing. Or, that the workplace was so negative or discouraging on fatherhood that no men asked to go home or pick up their kids from school. Or, more generally that we still live in a society that expects women to shoulder primary care for children. Bringing us to…
Problem #2: Reinforcing a gender norm that makes women workers feel like they must provide childcare (both by expectation and because employers are more amenable to “need to be more flexible” for women). That also means reinforcing the bias that employers will see potential female employees, especially ones with children, as ones that are likely to ask to go home at 5 and take weekends off. In other words, he is making it worse by lumping all women together and telling us employers can only hire women if they are flexible to exclusive and inevitable womanly needs like work-life balance.
To be fair, he says “sometimes.” But make no mistake: the message here is that “some” women are inconvenient workers, not that our societal expectations and work structure make it harder for men to enjoy family and for women to get work.
2) Women are not necessary workers
Part two of the childcare argument above is that we are ignoring a huge chunk of women who MUST work to provide family income AND take care of children. President Obama did a very important thing by saying that women are often breadwinners, and primary income earners. That’s important to recognize if we want to move past the antiquated notion that women work until they don’t have to – because they are lucky and complacent enough to not NEED their incomes (because their spouses can work non-flex-time and bring in the dough). Not convinced that this was said? Try:
Romney: “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.”
That’s right, we need employers so anxious to get workers that they will even start to hire women. And then, when World War II ends and all the boys come home and housing prices go up again, we women can get back to raising kids.
Problem #1: This statement, that in a strong economy, women will be hired when the economy is good enough to need every last worker, assumes that women are always going to be picked last. This essentially restates the question: why are they picked last, and paid less? It also assumes that there is a validity to this system, because the plan isn’t to get employers to recognize that women are great hires even in a recession, and not all inferior to their male counterparts, but to get to a point where even the inferior workers will be in demand.
Problem #2: If you hire more people, some of them will be women. Great. Will they make the same amount of money as men? No. Given problem #1, will there still be fewer proportionate number of female workers, and will they make less than men? Yes.
3) Women are less qualified to work
Well, let’s not give the President a free pass. He did in fact mention that we need more women in college. That’s simply not true. College enrollment rates show that women surpass men in basic education. The problem is that despite this, women are not seen as qualified; they don’t present themselves as qualified; they aren’t able to break glass ceilings and aren’t able to get ahead because of their presentation as women.
4) Sexism is not the real problem
Here is the most gross oversight: wage discrimination is ultimately about institutional sexism; everything that adds to that sexism is part and parcel of discrimination. That means whether it’s creating unreasonable standards for men’s dominance in the career world or unreasonable standards for women’s dominance in the domestic world, asking people to act in gendered ways is regressive. Limiting their choices also does more harm; rather than asking Americans to “get married” before having babies, and propping up the idea that single moms are poor because they don’t have husbands, we could point to the fact that both their single-mom-ness and their ensuing high costs are directly related to things like contraceptive coverage in health plans. Creating a national shaming campaign over women asking for contraception also devalues a crucial quality for career success: knowing what you have the right to demand.
The president may have called this a “family issue” and a “middle-class issue,” but there won’t be any more of a detailed analysis unless we start asking:
-Why women and men don’t have guaranteed access to parental leave;
-Why schools teach us to think carefully before getting pregnant, but don’t teach us about sexual harassment, control of our reproductive systems, economic independence, equal parenting and the myriad other factors preventing women and men from excelling equally in the workplace and in their family lives;
-Why work-life discussions at the college, graduate, professional, and even national Presidential-debate level are only addressed to women and “their” needs instead of drastically re-evaluating why our current system CANNOT put an end to wage discrimination.