By Karen Middleton
“Binders full of women” was a hit in last week’s presidential debate, but Gov. Mitt Romney had his facts wrong – again. Women – not Romney’s staff – created those “binders full of women” to ensure that women were considered for posts in his administration. The women in those binders represent talented leadership that can be key to our collective success in our capitols and boardrooms.
Romney said, “I went to my staff – gosh, can’t we find some women? Can you help us find folks?” But Romney didn’t recruit. Instead, 25 women’s organizations had formed MassGAP and gathered those resumes in an effort to diversify the state’s executive leadership. Similar efforts were started in 11 other states in 2010.
Bringing more women into power is not an “oh, gosh let’s add a few and stir” moment or simply a nod to gender. Women can deliver effectiveness to government and results to the bottom line. Women can change how we govern and how we run businesses.
Research shows women in Congress deliver more federal dollars to their districts; women on city councils provide better constituent services. Female politicians will also – unlike male politicians – speak to, legislate and vote for issues that focus on women and families, which serves us all.
Companies with women in their boardrooms deliver a 26 percent higher rate of return for their stockholders than companies with male-only boards, according to a Credit Suisse Research Institute study. In last week’s debate, Romney described his flexible workplace practices, citing that he allowed his chief of staff to leave by 5 p.m. in order to be at home to fix dinner for her kids. This was discussed as an exception for a woman, not recognition of the need for both women and men to have family time.
In contrast, President Obama talked about signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act to ensure equal pay for women. Not only did Obama avoid wading into the issue of who is cooking, he made a systemic change that helps women and their families. If changes are not embodied in policy, we remain at the mercy of individual actions that allow only some employees to leave for a family obligation.
There are many systemic changes – paid sick days, paid maternity coverage, broader child care options and time off for family needs – that could revolutionize our workplace and increase productivity. But it will take women in leadership to press for this kind of change.
How do we move forward? Women need to seek more top jobs in government and business. Let’s move beyond the binders to tackle the common adage “I would love to see a woman in this position, but I don’t have any good candidates.” Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, suggests that women “carry a list” of qualified women as a way to proactively respond to this excuse. If women are not included in the process, they are not selected.
It was refreshing to hear that policies that support women’s advancement were part of the presidential debate, and the phenomenon of “binders full of women” will probably outlast the election season. We now have started the conversation, so let us all begin doing something about getting those women out of the binders and into all sectors of leadership. We already know that creating a more diversified government and workplace will bring us all greater success.
Karen Middleton is the president of Emerge America, a national organization in San Francisco that identifies, encourages and trains Democratic women to run for elected office.