10/17/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

"Binders Full of Women" Distracts From Debate's Focus on Workplace Issues

As Big Bird became debate number one's catch phrase, "Binders full of women" is the trending phrase from the second presidential debate. Setting aside today's focus on parodies and memes that the phrase spawned, let's remember that the phrase was used in response to a question on women in the workplace, a serious issue that deserves more attention. Let's grab the opportunity presented and talk more about how employers can recruit and retain women at their workplaces and how this makes the overall workforce stronger and helps the economy.

I was extremely pleased to see this issue come up in the debate. Personally and professionally, I am happy to see some additional focus on the topic. Every October WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress sponsors National Work and Family Month, where employers are urged to shine a spotlight on their efforts to support their workforce on and off the job. Work-life benefits are benefits that all employees value and those benefits also help ensure a diverse more productive workforce. This issue is an important issue for this election. Members of working families are voters and have been hard hit by the economy woes. They make up a large portion of today's workforce. So what can we do? I believe that in order for businesses, families and communities to thrive, employers and employees need to collaborate to find innovative ways to support work-life policies that make sense for their specific workplaces.

In last night's debate Governor Romney talked about providing workplace flexibility to his employees. A WorldatWork study found that workplace flexibility is believed to have an overwhelmingly positive effect on employee engagement, motivation and satisfaction. In response to the same question, President Obama referenced, among other items, the importance of child care, specifically child care tax credits. In fact, according to BLS in 2011, 80.6 percent of the labor force has a child under the age of 18. But workplace flexibility and child care are only two examples of work/family programs that employers can implement. There are other areas of work/family policies that employers need to consider in reviewing the benefits offered to employees:

  1. Dependent care, such as day care resources, special needs child care, workplace parenting seminars eldercare needs and care-givers issues
  2. Health and wellness, such as health risk assessments (HRAs), weight management and nutritional counseling, fitness center affiliations, stress management programs
  3. Workplace flexibility, such as flextime, telecommuting, seasonal schedules
  4. Financial support and education for economic security
  5. Paid and unpaid time off, such as vacation and holidays, sick leave, family leave
  6. Encouraging community involvement where employers are located and employees live
  7. Transforming organization culture to support work-life programs, policies and practices

Recent studies, including one from Families and Work Institute have shown that employers implement worklife programs in order to retain their employees. Organizations that can offer more flexibility around reduced time, caregiving leaves and flex careers will have a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining employees as the aging workforce and dual focus on personal and professional lives among younger employees become increasingly important drivers in the labor market.

Here's hoping that after the twitterati move on to the next trending phrase, the conversation on efforts to highlight the importance of good work/family policies for attracting, motivating and retaining a talented workforce continues. We need to encourage businesses to think strategically about the flexibility and family-friendly benefits they offer their workers.