With one simple question about closing the pay gap, the debate over women's equality exploded Tuesday night.
President Obama and Governor Romney, both heavily courting the female vote, separately laid out their visions during the presidential debate, touching upon everything from Pell grants to work place flexibility to childcare subsidies.
Those messages mostly got lost amidst the Internet mania following Romney's "binders full of women" remark. The meme that followed was widespread (not to mention, quite funny), with images invoking a hodgepodge of characters including Beyonce, Hillary Clinton and Hugh Hefner in their parodies.
But beneath the binder jokes was an undercurrent of frustration felt by women across the country.
The core of that common attitude -- that all you need to advance equality in the work force is a binder full of female applicants (or any other superficial fix) -- is both condescending and flippant. It offers nothing more than a mirage, giving the appearance of diversity in employment without actually addressing the underlying structural problems that allow gender inequality to persist. It is like declaring racism extinct -- and affirmative action unnecessary -- because you have hired a person of color.
Even more disheartening is that employers must resort to such tactics to find qualified female applicants. Many of the men in the upper echelons of authority don't keep the company of successful women. And there are disappointingly few female CEOS -- only 18 among current Fortune 500 companies. Despite years of progress, women remain predominantly concentrated in low-wage jobs. Even college-educated women are vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields -- jobs that tend to pay more.
Employers have attempted to rectify the imbalance of women in high-level positions through such perks as flexible hours or part-time jobs. But career flexibility does not mean excusing your female employees early to cook dinner and care for their children. However well-intentioned, such policies are equally offensive.
The fundamental problem with those employment policies is the assumption that women are the cooks and the caregivers. I often wonder about male employees. Do any of them also have school-aged children or ailing parents? Are the men, as well, encouraged to take advantage of a flexible office culture? Or, more likely, do those men already have it all -- the high-powered career and doting family -- because of the women supporting them?
The equal pay question ignited something bigger than just a workplace issue, a fury that transcends politics. Once the binder moment has passed, what will remain is the urgent need for a cultural shift toward a less-gendered society. We need a system in place, secured by laws and policies, that enables both women and men to maintain appropriate work-life balances. With men increasingly more involved in domestic responsibilities and women demanding equal work opportunities, politicians from both parties must undertake the difficult task of ingraining these values in a society that is struggling to adjust to the evolving roles of men and women.
How do we incentivize companies to comply with the changing norms and the realities of families today? How do we compel employers to hire qualified women, not just in politicians' versions of a stronger economy, but also through the economy's inevitable long-term vicissitudes? (Never mind the idea of a female work force that is expendable in bad times, evocative of the post-World War II supplanting of women from their jobs following men's return from war.) How do we address these same challenges for the millions of low-income, hourly wage female workers?
Women need a government that acknowledges and addresses the barriers to our full participation in the work force. We need concrete solutions to the gender pay gap.
We need a commitment to equality from our politicians, employers and partners alike.
Follow Anika Rahman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AnikaRahman_