Even though it wasn’t a large part of the conversation, one of the most buzz-worthy topics from last week’s presidential town hall debate was equality for women in the workforce. A young woman voter asked President Obama and Governor Romney: “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” Their responses were inexplicit but led to some interesting post discussion from the pundits and social mediaphiles.
Here is an ABCNews.com segment specifically on this question from the debate: http://abcn.ws/RDD72p
President Obama references the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill he signed into law upon taking office. It removes the statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit past 180-days which was initially the law. Legislation in the right direction, but reactive at best. He also discusses education saying he would make it easier for women to get into college to ensure an equal start in the workforce. However, there are currently more women than men graduating from college.
Governor Romney talks about his track record of hiring women in his leadership ranks, his “binder” full of them, but misses the mark here: “I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible.” That his chief of staff needed to be home at 5 o’clock to cook dinner and be home with her kids. Taken at face value, that’s a good thing that he made accommodations for her. But without meaning it I’m sure, I think he perpetuated an issue.
While both men brought up aspects of women in the workforce – some relevant to the young woman’s question and some not, the topic of flexibility was mentioned. I thought: “Where are they going to take this?” Not far, it turns out.
Flexibility isn’t about getting home early to put dinner on the table … Mom. It is an important human capital strategy for businesses of all sizes and should be discussed in that context. Flexible work options are a universal need, and by reducing the rhetoric to soccer moms and school plays, we are denigrating the important work that so many organizations, leaders and advocates are doing to advance the conversation.
Jordan Weissmann, an associate editor at The Atlantic, wrote an interesting follow-up article to the debate via an interview with Francine Blau, a highly accredited labor economist and author at Cornell University. They touch on issues such as the pay gap history, factors that contribute and detract from that gap, gender discrimination, and parental responsibilities.
There are many viewpoints and considerations to take into account when discussing workplace equality, as Ms. Blau and others share. Regulations are needed, sure, to get us there in regards to pay and other aspects. But so much of the debate falls on perception. If women are seen as needing concessions – like “needing” flexibility to take care of the family – then current perceptions won’t change. Flexibility should be discussed in a different way. Once we can do that, flexible work options become more of the workplace norm for all professionals, and not just one more stumbling block for women’s equality in the workplace.
Please share your opinions on what I’ve discussed here. Are there aspects of the candidate’s responses that you particularly responded to? Where does flexibility fall on the workplace equality spectrum?
Allison O’Kelly is founder/CEO of Mom Corps