Why Binders For Women Isn’t The Worst Idea And Why It’s Not Enough

Emily Heist Moss explores the difference between equal opportunity and equal outcome, saying Romney faked a fair and balanced cabinet without addressing the reasons he needed “binders of women” in the first place.

In Tuesday’s Presidential debate, during a question about the state of women in America, Governor Romney described his tenure as Massachusetts governor and referenced his desire to find female candidates for various cabinet positions. Presented with a dearth of options, Romney had to take extra measures (the fabled “binders of women”) to create what would become a reasonably diverse group. By some measures, he succeeded, increasing women in senior leadership positions from 30% to 42%. As much flack as the governor has taken for the binders comment, I don’t think he had it completely wrong. Whether prompted by a women’s interest group or of his own accord, I think Romney did the right thing in Massachusetts and I hope more elected officials request a few binders of their own. But that’s not the end of the story.

Here’s where it gets problematic, and where my support for my former Governor grinds to a halt. His description of his hiring process doesn’t indicate that he understands the power of history to impede equality and the importance of legislation to propel it forward. No governor should have to dig so deep to find qualified women. Instead of being embarrassed that this is still the state of affairs, Romney seemed self-congratulatory, like he had singlehandedly equalized the playing field. In an ideal world, one without a history of sexism and racism, any governor staffing a new cabinet would by statistical default have a diverse slate to choose from. The résumé piles would be stacked with high quality candidates of every background, orientation, and gender.

The fact that Romney needed a binder at all leaves you with two choices. Either you believe that there are still economic, academic, social, and political blockers that make some achievements more challenging for certain demographic groups, or you believe that some demographic groups are inherently less qualified for leadership and success. Claiming inherent inferiority? Well that’s called racism. Or sexism. Or both.

If you are not a racist, and not a sexist, then binders full of women should not satisfy you. You should be asking your elected officials (or your professors, or employers) what they are doing to address the root causes of disparity. Some will point to outcomes—a high powered woman here, a successful black man there—and claim that their work is done. Equality achieved! There is a difference between equal opportunity and equal outcome. Outcome can be manufactured or jerry-rigged. Outcome can be faked with a quick hire or a high-profile appointment that will satisfy the most cursory of inspections. Outcome gerrymandering has its place—Romney’s binder being one example—but only as a temporary, fake-it-’til-you-make-it placeholder policy.

Consider affirmative action, the educational program whose fate is currently at the feet of the Supreme Court. At heart, affirmative action is a short-term policy, a stopgap, a half-step toward the end goal of equal opportunity. No fan of affirmative action (myself included) proposes that this policy should be permanent; it is not the end game for addressing America’s racist history. This is what we do in the meantime, while we dig deeper on why black students test 200 SAT points lower than the national average (if the SAT is even the right metric), or why one in three black men spend time in prison. Affirmative action is a fake-it-’til-you-make-it policy, one that artificially creates (or tries to create) equal outcomes while work is still being done on equal opportunity. In the end state, there is no need for affirmative action because the likelihood of a black kid born on the South Side of Chicago scoring a 1600 is the same as a white kid born in my hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts.

“Binders of women” is an affirmative action of sorts. It draws extra attention to an underserved demographic, allowing the former Governor to fake a fair and balanced cabinet without addressing the reasons he needed a binder in the first place. Much like the end state for affirmative action is its own destruction, the goal for women in this country is a playing field so level that a binder is never necessary. That’s what’s missing from Governor Romney’s spiel. It’s all well and good to pull out the binder if that’s the only way to create a semi-equal outcome, but what will he do to ensure that if his kids or grandkids are ever lucky enough to be governors themselves, they won’t need one?

People with privilege prefer pointing to outcome equality because it protects them from having to ask the tough questions about opportunity equality. Outcome equality is easier to measure, and easier to fudge. If you’ve pointed to President Obama and announced that our racism is “solved” because we have one black president, then you are deluding yourself with faux equality. One person’s success is not indicative of systemic change. Even three people’s success, say three consecutive female Secretaries of State, does not mean the glass ceiling is shattered. Are these milestones indicative of positive trends? I like to think so. Are they the finish line? Not a chance.

Tokenist support for diversity is not a solution to inequality. Vague declarations of demographic love do not rectify the wage gap. Ann Romney announcing, “I love you women!” is a clear example of this kind of rah-rah tokenism, and so is Scott Brown’s insistence that he loves and respects his daughters. It is easy to love and respect the women who agree with you, or the ones you married or parented. It is much harder to look critically at the state of the world, at the state of women both here and abroad, ones with whom you will likely never cross paths, and acknowledge that we still have a long way to go.  

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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