Gender inequality is an issue that has long prevented American women from being treated equally to men in the workforce because women are often stereotyped as traditional homemakers and caretakers, even though they are just as capable of excelling in power positions as men are. During the last election season, candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were given the opportunity to discuss their views on the topic at the Town Hall Debate at Hofstra University on October 16, 2012. As a young American woman who will soon enter the workforce, I was especially attuned to the discussion, as any new legislature passed will affect me. This paper will focus on the importance of the issue of the treatment of women and the way the 2012 presidential election candidates, in the second debate of the election season, addressed it. Though both President Obama and Governor Romney claimed they have personally worked to make sure women receive fair treatment in all work-related areas, I believe that President Obama won the debate on the issue of treatment of women because he was able to include a plan that would further the rights of women so that true gender equality may be reached in the United States. Meanwhile, Governor Romney’s attempts to explain his view on the issue made him seem disconnected from women voters, especially when he claimed he had compiled “binders full of women” candidates in his search for his ideal gubernatorial cabinet.
Both President Obama and Governor Romney agree that unequal treatment and pay for women is a long-standing issue in the United States, which can be attributed to societal stereotypes. Women are often stereotyped according to the traditional roles that they have played in society. For this reason, they are often expected to assume the roles of “caretakers,” while men are expected to “take charge” (Catalyst 9). Because of this past norm, women are still believed to be more affectionate and sensitive, while men are believed to be the more ambitious and tough of the two genders (Catalyst 5). Although these stereotypical characteristics reflect old ideas, they are still sometimes seen as true because of their past relevance.
When asked how they would rectify gender inequalities in the workplace during the debate, both candidates explained why there must be progress toward equal treatment and pay for women in the United States. President Obama broadened the argument to include groups other than women. He said, “This is not just a women’s issue. This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue. And that’s why we’ve got to fight for it.” By insinuating that this issue affects more than just women, he gave the issue great importance, and established that it is something that hinders America’s progress as a whole. President Obama also led the argument when he mentioned the Lilly Ledbetter bill, a bill named after a woman who sued for getting paid less than a man who worked the same job as her for the same number of years. President Obama signed the bill to make pay discrimination illegal, including on the basis of sex. Governor Romney, on the other hand, relied on statistics to prove that the issue is of great importance. He mentioned that women have lost 580,000 jobs in the last four years since President Obama began his first term. Though the use of statistics was effective, it lacked the powerful definitiveness that President Obama’s argument carried because Governor Romney did not clarify whether this job loss was related to gender inequality in the workforce.
President Obama was correct when he stated that unequal treatment and pay for women is an issue that affects much more than women in society. Business productivity may suffer by this method of thought, which could consequently hurt the nation’s economy. Running a company based on the stereotypes of women can be detrimental for the employees and the company as a whole. By only allowing men to take positions of power, the company is limiting itself in terms of productivity (Catalyst 5). Women and men must be considered equal in order to determine the best possible candidate for a specific position since many women work just as effectively, if not more effectively, than men, including in power positions. Being able to take charge is not a skill determined by gender. Men and women alike may possess the ability to efficiently take charge in the workplace, and women should not be considered incapable because of their gender’s stereotypes.
Because of employers who refuse to place women in positions of power, women often hit a metaphorical “glass ceiling” in the workforce. This is when an employee is stuck in a certain position and less qualified workers are promoted above him or her. The idea of hitting the glass ceiling often demotivates women because it causes them to feel unworthy of high power positions, and they stop aspiring to pass their male counterparts up on the corporate ladder (Catalyst 26). In the Town Hall Debate, President Obama used this phenomenon to effectively relate to women when he told an anecdote about his grandmother who hit the glass ceiling when she was promoted to vice president of a local bank and found herself training men who eventually became her bosses. Though she continued to work to provide for her family, she became very frustrated in the fact that there was no hope for her to rise any higher in the company. Like President Obama’s grandmother, countless women become very unhappy with their inability to surpass men in the workplace, despite their level of skill. This sometimes results in women employees underperforming, which hinders the efficiency of the company. Refraining from giving women the positions they deserve is not only a sexist policy, then, but ultimately prevents the company from reaching its highest possible productivity.
Just as President Obama related to American women through the use of his anecdote, Governor Romney also tried to show his devotion to the issue through a personal story. Specifically, Governor Romney discussed his attempt to include women in his gubernatorial cabinet; he and his staff put together “binders full of women” candidates in order to be more inclusive of women in his search for his ideal cabinet. This comment sparked an immense amount of backlash from Romney critics on the Internet; they argued that Governor Romney insensitively made women seem like products for sale. Within minutes, the phrase “binders full of women” was a trending topic on Twitter and Twitter accounts such as @RomneysBinders and @womaninabinder poked fun at Governor Romney and his politically clumsy phrase.
Governor Romney’s comment quickly gained notoriety on the Internet, especially after a Tumblr blog titled “Binders Full of Women” went viral. In the weeks after the debate, the blog administrator posted pictures submitted by others who were amused by the Romney gaffe. For example, throughout Halloween season countless pictures of women in binder costumes were posted, including pictures of actress Sophia Bush, who sported a cardboard binder covered in pictures of women wrapped around her body to a Halloween party. Among the most widely spread pictures was one of John Cusack, in which the boom box he famously held over his head in the movie Say Anything was replaced by four binders with icons of women on their spines. The popularity of the blog made the phrase an Internet meme – a generally amusing picture or phrase spread from person to person via the Internet – very quickly.
Unfortunately for him, Romney’s “binders full of women” comment, which referenced women as if they were products for sale, made it difficult for him to regain the respect of those he had offended. Many believed that this gaffe showed Romney’s true nature as a candidate, especially in terms of the issue at hand. Special correspondent for CNN Maria Cardona said, “Even as a slip of the tongue, this odd phrase betrays Romney’s true lack of understanding, knowledge and comfort level on women’s equality.” It seems that Romney believed that by insisting he looked for women to add to his cabinet, he would be seen as an ally for women fighting for equality. However, the governor probably should have just mentioned that he considered male and female candidates equally in his search for his ideal cabinet rather than making the insensitive “binders” remark.
In fact, critics found that the governor was not entirely telling the truth in his story. Romney said that he had the people working for him create the binders of women’s resumés, but it was found that the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, an association of nonpartisan women’s groups, had provided Governor Romney with the women’s resumes instead (Cardona). The resumes were provided to Romney to encourage him to include women in his cabinet; alas, he did not. Governor Romney did not look for women to add to his cabinet; women’s groups looked for him. Therefore, it can be said that Governor Romney’s “binders full of women” anecdote caused him more trouble than assistance. It was found to be a lie told in order to gain the support of women—whom he largely ended up offending (Cardona).
Women’s equality, especially in the workforce, is an issue that has plagued the United States for decades. In order to move forward, the nation must elect officials who are proactive in treating women equally to men. As the Town Hall Debate showed, President Obama has exhibited these qualities, while Governor Romney has repeatedly shown himself to be unable to genuinely connect to the issue. While President Obama gained an understanding of the need for women’s equality in the workforce through his family history and policy-based attempts to solve the issue, Governor Romney used an insensitive phrase to mislead the public regarding his attempts to employ women, making him seem very distant from the issue and unwilling to actively combat the inequality that exists for women in the United States. In this, the second debate of the season, President Obama showed his dedication to reaching true gender equality in the United States and excelled over Governor Romney.
Binders Full of Women. Tumblr, Web. 6 Jan. 2013.
Cardona, Maria. “Romney’s Empty ‘Binders Full of Women.’” Editorial. CNN. 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
Catalyst, comp. Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed. Research rept. no. 1. New York City: Catalyst, 2005. Print.
“Transcript of the Second Presidential Debate.” New York Times. 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.