A lot of people -- rightfully -- are offended by Mitt Romney's insinuation in Tuesday's debate that he couldn't find qualified female workers for his cabinet in Massachusetts without looking through binders, as if women aren't visible unless we're presented like mail-order brides. It was disturbing. I don't think that the memes that have erupted as a result are even remotely funny, and I don't think that we should brush off his comment as a joke, an out-of-touch white man's folly, because it echoes of the inherent misogyny that still is very much present in our society, one in which both Romney and Obama are very much entrenched, whether they like it or not.
While Romney's answer, along with his demeanor the entire evening, scared me, I don't really think that Obama handled the only question last night directed at women's issues very well either. Katherine Fenton asked: "In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?"
Obama then went on to wax poetic about his own experience being raised by a single mother. It was the sort of personal anecdote that the candidates have been using all season to pander to voters as if we're all idiots.
Then he had a lay-up moment, when he brought up the first bill he signed into law, the "Lily Ledbetter Act," which doesn't actually solve the pay discrepancy that exists in the workplace. Rather, it just allows women to bring suit from the moment that an employer makes the initial discriminatory wage decision, instead of from the most recent paycheck. In other words, if you're a woman and you're doing the same work as a man but are getting paid less, you have more agency to do something about it after it has already happened.
What it doesn't address, however, is why the pay discrepancy exists and how it can be fixed. The solution isn't prescriptive. It requires overhauling the entire work place environment, which was created for men, by men, and has no place for women.
Now, I am no expert on the subject, and I have no statistics on hand to back up my arguments. I've read quite a number of books and articles on the matter, none of which I have on hand to quote, and many of which, at this point, are probably outdated.
But what I can say is that a large part of the reason why women get paid less -- and why they also don't hold as many leadership positions in companies -- is no doubt because of misogyny. There is an entrenched belief that a woman's work isn't worth as much, both because gender roles still hold pretty firm -- men deserve more money because they are the breadwinners -- and because a woman is perceived as being a ticking mommy bomb, who might leave at any time because she meets a rich man or wants to have children.
And it's true, once women have children, they drop out of the workforce. When they return, sometimes years later, not only is it more difficult to find a job, it is also impossible to re-enter at the same level as men who once had the same qualifications.
But dropping out of the workforce after having a child strikes me as more of a necessity than a cop-out. After watching some of my close friends start having babies, I am in awe of the pure physical impossibility of summoning the energy to work in an office when your child is an infant. Pregnancy is exhausting; birthing a child is like getting an injury from war. It takes months to recover from it. But the worst is when you bring your child home to your apartment, often times in a city far away from your family, and are left alone to take care of him or her, without a built-in support system.
The child needs to eat every few hours, and the mother is the only person who can feed it. (Unless, of course, you give it formula, in which case you're still getting up throughout the night to give the baby a bottle). Once it stops being a feeding machine, it moves around CONSTANTLY. It never rests. It never really sleeps long enough for you to get anything done. Those days when you were able to recover from a tough work week by sleeping late on a Saturday are finished. You never get to sleep late. You never get to take a day off. You never get to rest. Your life is given over to a tiny, helpless thing that screams, pulls at you and can't communicate.
How is a mother supposed to be able to concentrate on working when she's experiencing something that, in other situations, is described as torture -- sleep deprivation, isolation and nipple pulling?
Topped with the stress of commuting, dealing with politics in an office and being good at your job, I can only imagine that life becomes pure misery. Quelle horreur, I say to myself, a childless woman. I have no idea how mothers do it.
In such a scenario, what would I want to change for my generation of women, many of whom will become mothers? Equal pay, of course. But also workplace environments that make our lives manageable. The support we need from our employers in order to raise our children. This means, perhaps, bringing our children to work with us. This means, perhaps, staying at home for the majority work week, so that we don't have to waste time navigating our way to an office, time that could be spent in the home, where laundry, food and our children are within easy reach.
I have to say, my lifestyle is pretty ideal for motherhood. I am at freelance writer who is at home all day, easily able to accept packages. That has nothing to do with motherhood, but it's ideal for online shopping. If I cut down on the time that I wasted watching television, talking on Gchat, and reading junk on the Internet, having a child in school and a career would probably be manageable. Having a toddler would be difficult, and would probably require some serious negotiations with my boyfriend, the hypothetical father. But having an infant and working at my current pace would be impossible. But in what situation would having an infant not be impossible? Maybe if I were a Queen.
The one thing that I suffer from is isolation. Which could be rectified, idealistically, by communal working spaces in my neighborhood that included daycare centers within the premise. If I decided to have children, I could go somewhere to work, around other people, while at the same time sharing duties of motherhood within a larger community, which is what women so sorely lack in our contemporary world. People don't need to be in offices all of the time. They don't need to be in meetings. In the digital age, so much can be accomplished remotely, with far more flexibility and convenience.
More than anything, what I want from my life is balance. Women place the most value on things such as family, friendships, love lives, health. Ultimately, while pay equality is important, it's not on the top of my list of concerns.
So when a woman asks, "How can we close inequalities in the workplace?" I say to her, "We change the workplace." Not, "We make it easier for you to sue your employers," or "I know binders full of women," or even, "My mother was just like you." Those are answers from men, who can't even begin to see what life is like for us, in our bodies, with our different needs.
For the question of inequality in the workplace to really be answered -- or the situation to change -- we need a woman in the office of President. That's what I hope for. That's what I believe in. That's what I'll fight for these next four years.