Sunday, October 21, 2012

By the way, "Binders Full of Women" is Affirmative Action

A lot has been said about Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" comment during last Tuesday's debate.  Not much of it has been good.  The comment itself went viral on the internet just seconds after he said it, so it is easy to see how many people may have missed the subtext of what the comment actually conveyed.  Let's take a look at what was actually said:

CROWLEY: Governor Romney, pay equity for women?
ROMNEY: 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 -- 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 -- and so we -- 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.

The first thing that may jump out at you about this response from Gov. Romney is that it actually doesn't answer the question.  The question asked each candidate how they felt about the issue of equal pay for women in the workplace, not whether there are an equal number of women in the workforce.

In fact, the exact question was:
In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn? 
In addition to straying from the subject of equal pay for women in the workplace, you will also notice that it doesn't provide a policy for what Gov. Romney will actually do but instead merely provides us with an anecdote of a past experience where he increased the number of women in his cabinet.  This is the equivalent of somebody asking you "what are you going to do tomorrow?" and you responding with "well this one time at band camp I went skinny dipping in the lake."  That's great, but you still haven't told me what you are going to do tomorrow.

Now in fairness to the Governor, "inequalities in the workplace" could mean different things to different people.  Reasonable minds could disagree as to what "inequality" means. Which makes Romney's response even more interesting because the first thing that was triggered in his mind when he heard "inequality" was that there needs to be a "concerted effort to go out and find women" for the workplace.  There's actually a name for taking a "concerted effort" to increase underrepresented groups in the workplace (or in education).  You may have heard of it before.  It's called "Affirmative Action."

Stated differently, Mitt Romney has told us that he not only believes in Affirmative Action, but that he has actually attempted to practice Affirmative Action when he was Governor of Massachusetts.  This is a significant departure from the Republican platform which is vehemently opposed to Affirmative Action.

Now I say that Romney "attempted" to practice Affirmative Action because, based on the information he provided in the above-referenced anecdote, it sounds like he may have been guilty of committing a common error typically committed by people who think that they are practicing Affirmative Action when in reality they are merely trying to fill a quota.  In addition to being illegal, quotas are the lazy man's approach to Affirmative Action in either education or in the workplace because it incorrectly places a premium on quantity over quality.  That is not Affirmative Action.  Affirmative Action is, as the Governor partially mentioned, simply making a "concerted effort" to open the door for qualified minorities and women where those doors have historically been closed.

Nevertheless, even if Gov. Romney went about it via the quota method, he at least deserves credit for recognizing the legitimate need for Affirmative Action.  Especially in the workplace where, if left to their own devices, people tend to only hire and promote others who look like themselves.

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