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Let's Hope More People Create "Binders Full of Women"


If you haven’t been on a complete Internet break for the last few days, you’ve probably heard about Mitt Romney and his “Binder Full of Women” comment (or, at the very least, heard about the tumblr for it).

For the uninitiated, here’s what was said:

ROMNEY: Thank you. An 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.

Boston Phoenix journalist David Bernstein has disputed the actual course of events, and perhaps we can debate whether or not he was really answering the question, but honestly, this is one of those moments where I would just like to say: everybody settle down.

First, there has been quite a bit of talk now about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. If you’re like I was and need a refresher on what the LLFPA is, it was the first bill signed into law by President Obama, and it makes it easier for women to bring a lawsuit against their employer for wage discrimination. But if making it easier to sue your employer is really our best hope for women to improve their prospects in the workplace, I think we have a problem.

For all the good intentions, the reality is that suing your employer is a big deal. Even having a good case, and with protection through anti-retaliation laws, how many of us would have the fortitude to go into work and face the people we’re suing day in and day out? If you’re concerned about just having a job, are you going to make a move that seems like career suicide? The very nature of the situation is difficult and seems more like an option of last resort.

That’s not to say there isn’t something to fix. I started my career as an investment analyst at a big bank, and while I never felt that being a woman made it more difficult to do my job or be promoted, I also came to notice something peculiar: getting more women analysts hired was difficult. While interviews were conducted and scored on objective criteria, the final hiring decisions rarely are. Once you narrowed down the pool to all the ones who were competent—usually there were more highly qualified people than job openings—the question everyone is asking themselves is “this someone I want to spend 15 hours a day with?”

That's a valid question! It’s a long day, hard work, and you want to build a culture of people who enjoy working together. To get there, you need some kind of heuristic to figure out who should get the job offer. Far too often, though, we look for people similar to ourselves, even subconsciously: the ones we clicked with, who had similar hobbies, went to the same school or were in the same social clubs. It's a natural inclination, but if that’s how decisions are being made, it’s easy to see how–when the majority of the decision makers are men–fewer women become the top choice.

What this highlighted to me was that real change has to come from a genuine desire for diversity in your firm and how you build your team. That requires more than just a large pool of highly qualified women for the job; you need to hire them. Either that decision gets made by having a group of people who allow that to influence their hiring decisions, or it comes from management setting the expectation that a diverse workforce is something desirable to be achieved.

Which leads me back to Governor Romney. However you feel about his proposed policies and plans, actually hiring women for influential positions is a good thing. Let us hope more people follow that lead.

Image via Kheel Center, Cornell University