Wage gap? Gender gap? Answers from Obama and Romney fall through the cracks

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama were animated during their second debate.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

American women may have gotten a fabulous idea for a Halloween costume from Tuesday night’s presidential debate — wrap themselves in binders! — but they didn’t get an answer to the one question exclusively about them.

When 24-year-old Katherine Fenton asked, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72% of what their male counterparts earn?” both men danced around the issue with the Republican and Democratic versions of the gender-gap two-step.

Mitt Romney’s (now disputed) claim that when he, as governor of Massachusetts, demanded to see more female applicants resulted in him being brought “binders of women” may have become the official punch line of the second debate, but neither man bothered to actually answer the question.


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Even worse, their responses were surprisingly condescending.

They each immediately and very noticeably went personal, as if the word “females” triggered some deeply embedded Skinnerian word association response — “Women like personal stories,” you could almost hear their handlers whisper. “Tell them a personal story.”

Obama, with two daughters and the formidable Michelle as his wife, clearly thought this was an easy out. He loosened up, took his time. He was, as he reminded everyone for the 7 millionth time, the son of a single mother who put herself through school, raised by a grandmother who, though discriminated against in the workplace, never complained “because that generation didn’t complain.”

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As if this were a good thing, not complaining. Which, and we must beckon for the fact-checker here, I’m fairly certain some of them did, including Betty Friedan, who was a contemporary of Obama’s grandmother, as was the late great Bella Abzug, only they called it “protest.”

Obama then pointed out that he had supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, after Ledbetter lost her pay equity case in front of the Supreme Court.

“So we fixed that,” the president said. Et voila, pay equity all around! Instead of discussing how, say, that act might work for real women, he decided to turn a question about equal pay into an opportunity for him to point out his support for legal abortion and insurance coverage of contraceptives.

PHOTOS: The presidential debate

Because clearly any mention of women must prompt a discussion of abortion and contraception, and legal abortion and covered contraception should, somehow, make up for women not getting paid enough. (Memo to American management: Next time a man asks for a raise, just hand him a box of condoms.) He summed up with his go-to argument of the night: He would ensure that everyone gets an education. Because we all know that women with college degrees are never discriminated against in the workplace.

Then it was Romney’s turn. Not only did he pat himself on the back for going the extra mile to seek out qualified women for jobs in his administration, women who were apparently hiding in the cranberry bogs or under witness protection, he also allowed his female chief of staff to go home at 5 o’clock every day so she could make dinner for her young children.

Because if you want to hire women, you have to be flexible enough to let them bring home the bacon and then fry it up in a pan.

No doubt being chief of staff to the governor of Massachusetts is a demanding job, but “allowing” someone to go home at 5 o’clock after she has, presumably, worked a full day is not exactly flex time. And does Romney have any sort of program in mind to encourage other businesses to be family flexible? Well, no. But as he said approximately 780 times on Tuesday night, he knows what a good economy looks like and a good economy “gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”

Which sounds much more like child care than flex time, and child care that Mama will be paying for her own self. (Romney also did not directly answer a question about which tax loopholes he would close, even though it was posed as an opportunity for him to assure voters that things like the child care and college tuition deductions would be safe.)

Also, not all women have young dinner-demanding children, and those who have them now will not have them for the rest of their lives. So, as with covered contraception and legal abortion, flex time does not, in any way, make up for the kind of across-the-board unequal wages we are still, unbelievably, seeing in 2012.

In fact, it is precisely these sorts of arguments — that women require special handling, that they will get married and quit; that they will get pregnant and take maternity leave or that their roles as mothers and wives make them less productive — are some of the reasons that the wage gap exists. More important, neither Obama nor Romney would think of answering a question about stagnating wages among men by telling a personal story about a guy they let go home at 5 because he has young children or the benefits of insurance covering prostate exams.

And that is pretty much the definition of sexism.

So next time, guys, maybe you should just answer the woman’s question.


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