Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" comment sparks… (Scott Eells / Bloomberg )
So by now, Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment from Tuesday night’s presidential debate has long passed into meme territory. It’s been branded the new “Big Bird.” Inevitably, some are questioning the accuracy of the remark.
In response to a question about women making 72% of each dollar earned by a man, President Obama talked about signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, described his search for qualified women for his 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,” he said.
But to many, the viral interest in Romney’s choice of words misses the point: That Tuesday night was the first time gender inequality in the workplace has been broached in a major way as a key election issue.
Women still make less than men for the same work. They constitute a paltry portion of corporate executives. And although more research is starting to suggest that having a woman on board in all senses of the word is better for business, the glass ceiling doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
“I’m very glad that it’s been brought to the fore – there hasn’t been a lot of talk about women in the election except for the occasional lip service,” said Betty Spence, president of the nonpartisan National Assn. for Female Executives.
But outside the political arena, the issue has gotten plenty of traction this year.
After Princeton University professor and former State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter claimed that women “can’t have it all” in a magazine piece, the article went viral. Marissa Mayer encountered praise and concern when she took on the chief executive post at Yahoo while pregnant.
Study after study seemed to suggest that female managers were key to a balance sheet boost. The Credit Suisse Research Institute found that public companies with female board members delivered higher average returns on equity, better share price performance and more growth.
Research this month from Dow Jones suggests that venture-backed firms with women serving as top executives have a better shot of success than rivals with only men at the helm –they’re more likely to be profitable, sell for a higher price or go public.
But in California, female business executives still have a century to go before reaching parity with fellow male honchos, according to UC Davis. The percentage of female leaders at the 400 largest public companies in the state is growing at just 0.2% a year.
And Americans still prefer a male boss than a female one, though the margin is the slimmest it’s ever been, according to pollster Gallup. And nearly half of employees said they don’t care about their superior’s gender.
Women “are still not making any progress getting on boards,” said NAFE’s Spence. Their share of chief executive positions is still in the low single digits. And executives without women in their inner circles will always have trouble evening out the office playing field, she said.
“These are really critical positions, and not just because women are 83% of the buying public,” she said. “Women are excluded from the places where hiring decisions are made.”
That may be why working women continue to make 20% to 30% less than men on average, Spence said. They also suffer from a “huge pension gap.”
“Equal pay is not just a women’s issue, it’s a family issue,” she said. “Women are becoming the primary breadwinners in many cases and are likely to outlive their spouses. With less to live on, less to save and less to retire on, they’re not going to be able to have the money to survive.”