'Binders Full of Women' Is Actually a Great Approach

Mitt Romney's comment about "binders full of women" got a lot of snark during the debate last night (and instantly spawned a contemptuous tumblr, Twitter and Facebook page).  Here's exactly what he said in reply to a question about the pay gap for women:

ROMNEY: Thank you. And important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men.

And I -- and I went to my staff, and I said, "How come all the people for these jobs are -- are all men." They said, "Well, these are the people that have the qualifications." And I said, "Well, gosh, can't we -- can't we find some -- some women that are also qualified?"

ROMNEY: And -- and so we -- we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.

I went to a number of women's groups and said, "Can you help us find folks," and they brought us whole binders full of women.

I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

There are a lot of things about Romney I don't like, but what he did to address sexism was excellent, and I'm frustrated it's being treated as a laugh line by other liberals. What he did was (sadly) pretty remarkable:

  1. Romney noticed they weren't thinking of hiring women
  2. He assumed this indicated a problem with his team's process instead of evidence that no qualified women existed
  3. He realized he and his team didn't know how to find well-qualified women
  4. So he turned to womens' groups for guidance
  5. And then he hired women!

Most organizations don't make it very far past step one. They assume the dearth of qualified women is a fact about the world, not evidence of their own bias or problems in the pipeline. Even though, just this month, another study came out showing that men and women rate a sample resume as less qualified if there's a woman's name at the top of the page.

But even the good groups can derail at Step 4. Where Romney turned to women for data (in binders), plenty of HR people just throw up their hands and decide, since they don't know how to solve the problem, it must not be their responsibility.

I would be thrilled if more individuals showed the kind of initiative and leadership on gender issues that Romney did when he was staffing his cabinet in Massachusetts. But it's because a lot of people fall short of his example that I support Barack Obama and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

If companies are being systematically sexist (whether though negligence or deliberately), they're hurting women and they're hurting themselves. But market incentives aren't strong enough to make people work through the problem the way that Romney did. Government action can help put the pressure on solve the pay gap and hiring gap problems.

It's great that Romney did such a good job reaching out to women, and he deserves praise, not snark for his efforts. But if he wants to win the votes of women and other feminists, he needs to show that he's willing to lead by more than example.

UPDATE: According to a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts called MassGAP, Romney did not take the initiative to seek out women. The binders he referred to were prepared before the election by MassGAP, which lobbied hard for better hiring practices. He made good use of the data he was handed, but kinda skipped steps 1-3.