Hess: Mitt Romney's 'binders full of women' mean cabinets full of women

"Romney's positions on health care, contraception and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will do nothing to help women in jobs across America. Binders stocked with intelligence on top-shelf female candidates, though? I'm cool with those," writes Amanda Hess. Photo Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

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It was amazing to watch the phrase "binders full of women" leave Mitt Romney's mouth at Tuesday night's debate and evolve into full-fledged Internet meme in a matter of minutes. And it was disappointing to see an important conversation about hiring and promoting women in the workforce tabled in favor of nonsensically Photoshopping Carly Rae Jepson into an empty three-ring.

Romney's positions on health care, contraception and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will do nothing to help women in jobs across America. Binders stocked with intelligence on top-shelf female candidates, though? I'm cool with those.

In a rush to discredit Romney's position entirely, commenters are strangely spinning his underlying point -- when female candidates don't apply for jobs, employers should find them, and hire them about half the time -- as somehow anti-feminist.

Like much of Romney's stumping, he's overstated his position here. Romney claimed that when his advisers presented him with few female candidates to stock his cabinet, he asked women's groups to nominate qualified women, and then he hired them. The Boston Phoenix's political reporter, David S. Bernstein, counters that the bipartisan women's group MassGAP assembled these binders of viable female candidates before Romney was elected governor, and then presented them to him unprompted.

Still, binders from feminist groups are easy for governors to trash. I'm more interested in what he did with those candidates: Bernstein reports that Romney "appointed 14 women out of his top 33 senior-level appointments." Romney's lieutenant governor and chief of staff were both women. That puts his record on hiring women well above the national average.

Binders full of women mean cabinets full of women.

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Amazingly, Romney is now being criticized for the idea that achieving parity in political appointments requires effort. Bernstein writes, "This man who had led and consulted for businesses for 25 years didn't know any qualified women, or know where to find any qualified women. So what does that say?" Bernstein tries to make this a Mitt Romney problem, but it is a systemic problem.

A Tumblr "Text from Hillary" entry posted by that.wren.girl, trotted out in reaction to the binders comment, implies that the existence of a female secretary of state means that Barack Obama's record on promoting women is more impressive than Romney's, but it's not. Only one-third of his high-level team members are women. Surprise: The men who run this country, most of its states, and the majority of its congressional offices have mostly male networks. Seeking outside help to ensure your staff is diversified does not make you a monster with no female friends. Actually, it makes you something of a feminist.

The old boys' club is firmly entrenched in American politics, and the policies Obama discussed on the stage Tuesday night will only go so far toward rectifying the problem. Women suffer from a pay gap, but when it comes to political positions, the self-promotion gap is their biggest barrier to success.

Women & Politics Institute director Jennifer Lawless has found a serious discrepancy among how similarly qualified men and women in political pipeline industries -- law, policy, finance -- rate their own viability as candidates. Men are much more likely to consider themselves qualified to run for office than women are. Worse, 60 percent of the men who don't see themselves as qualified say they're likely to run anyway. Women need to be asked over and over again to run for office before they begin to consider it.

When Lawless talks to these reluctant women, she finds they have three major justifications for not throwing their hats into the ring: family responsibilities, self-doubt and a lack of encouragement from above. Mitt Romney's binders can help resolve two of those issues.

Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science, and health. This is from Slate.

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