Beyond the Binders: What Romney and Obama Are Missing on Pay Equity

This post was written by Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow Liza Mundy. Listen to Mundy dissect the presidential debate and the women's vote on this week's edition of New America's news podcast, The Sidebar.

At first, the contrarian in me was willing to give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt on the binders comment. I’m referring, of course, to the GOP nominee’s statement during the second presidential debate on Tuesday:  He told the audience that when he became Massachusetts governor, he asked women’s groups to help him fill his cabinet with strong females. The groups presented him with “binders full of women” qualified for the post. Cue the angry feminist mob – and the hilarious Amazon binder reviews.

But then news surfaced that upon taking office as governor, he didn't ask for the binders. A women’s group that wanted to see more women in top government positions gave Romney the binders, beseeching him to consider female candidates. So the whole argument Romney made turned out to be self-serving and false - a reminder that you can never be too skeptical.

I was also willing to give him credit for at least hinting at the benefit of things like affirmative action, quotas, and workplace flexibility during the debate. But now I'm less inclined to do that. Too bad for him: When I was reporting a piece for Zócalo Public Square about Mormonism and women, some Boston women I talked to said he had a reputation for working well with women. Now he went and wrecked that by over-reaching.

What's frustrating about the conversation around women this election is that it's vague and scattered, and there are so many unanswered questions.

The debate around pay equity on Tuesday, for example, raised far more questions than it answered. The conversation was not enlightening because neither candidate acknowledged (or knows, probably) that the causes of the pay gap are many and varied. Nor was there any effort to set the record straight about what the pay gap is, exactly.

The young female teacher who asked the question about pay equity (“in what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”) used a figure, 72 percent, that I’ve not seen – and that over-states the gap.

The gap is real but it's not quite that high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women currently working full time make 81 percent of what men make. That's all women, in all professions, working full-time, versus all men, in all professions, working full-time. It does not include part-time or self-employed workers.

 Economists have pored over the gap, which is hard to unpack, and they have found this: Part of the cause is that among older, higher-paid workers in senior positions, there are still more men. This is because more men entered the job market in the 1970s and 1980s, gradually rose to those high positions, and are still occupying them. The wage and other discrimination women suffered in the 1970s and 1980s is thus still having a lingering impact. But that could change, as this generation of super-empowered, ambitious young women rises through the ranks. (The pay gap is much smaller among younger workers, and there are studies showing that single childless young women in many American cities are now out-earning their male peers).

Another cause of the gap is that women are still clustering in lower-paid professions, though this is also changing as women infiltrate fields like law and medicine. Another cause is that men work a slightly longer workweek. Yet another cause may be what is called the maternal pay wall: Once women have children, their salaries grow more slowly than men's. Even taking all these factors into account, economists have concluded that there is a portion of the pay gap that is "unexplained," and likely due to discrimination.

Given this complex set of causes, there are lots of policy fixes necessary to correct the pay gap. The president cited the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first bill he signed into law. The Act makes it easier for a person to bring a pay discrimination case to court by relaxing the old rules on the statute of limitations. (By the time Lilly Ledbetter found out she had been discriminated against, it was too late to sue under the existing law at the time). That's a valuable law but it won't fix everything. We need other anti-discrimination laws as well, and a government prepared to enforce them.

We also need measures in place to ensure women advance. If Romney really had gone out of his way to recruit women for top positions, that would be noteworthy; it does help when women are sought out and encouraged to put themselves forward.

We might want to talk about quotas and affirmative action. (Would a President Romney codify any of this binder business, or would he make it purely voluntary?) We also need policies that will keep women in the workforce after they become mothers. Critically, that means not only flextime but also child care. It's child care that enables women and men to keep working.

There’s a whole constellation of fixes that are necessary, but the conversation about the pay gap rarely gets that detailed.

Liberals and feminists tend to focus on the discrimination piece of it. Conservatives tend to argue that women "want" the pay gap because they don't work as long of hours as men, and sort themselves into lower-paying fields. They like to argue that it’s voluntary. Neither of these perspectives addresses the full picture.

Somewhat related to all this: I went to hear Gloria Steinem speak last week in honor of the 40th anniversary of Ms. Magazine. Addressing the question of why there aren't more women in politics, she argued that as long as women are the primary caregivers for children, people will  associate female authority with childhood. Thus, having women in positions of power will make many people feel uncomfortably child-like. She argued that encouraging more men to take a larger caregiving role  will dispel this feeling; people will become more comfortable with authoritative women.

So more stay at home dads (or simply more dads as involved parents) will ultimately equal more women in positions of power. I thought that was a fascinating psychological point. Too bad they didn't get into it during the debate.

Photo credit: Reuters/ Rick Wilking