10/17/2012 08:17 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

The Second Debate: In Pursuit of Women Voters

Co-authored with Eileen Coates: National Board Certified Public School Teacher

One of the most telling questions in the second of the debates between the presidential candidates focused on the gender pay gap: asking in what ways the candidates would "rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females only making 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?" Government Romney's answer to that question helps explains why he trails Obama among women voters. The president's answer helps explain why that gap is not widening.

The Romney answer was an embarrassment. Instead of addressing the issue head-on (or indeed at all), he chose instead to describe in detail how he had gone hunting for women candidates for senior positions in his Massachusetts administration, and how he had subsequently recognized their occasional need to get home early to be with their children. (He apparently recognized no such need for men to do the same.) The only point of substance in his response was the loss by women workers of 580,000 jobs in the Obama years, and the greater number of women in consequence now among the poor. His only proposed solution was more economic growth, producing more employment for men and women both. He had nothing specific to say about how to make sure that women regained employment at an equivalent rate to men.

The president's answer was much better. He spoke of signing the Lily Ledbetter Act, as an example of the advocacy for women's rights to which he was committed. He spoke of using Pell Grants to give young women access to higher education. He spoke of enforcing laws against gender discrimination, and he stressed the impact of the Affordable Care Act (and of federally-supported Planned Parenthood) on women's health and reproductive rights.

But the president could have said more. Perhaps he should have said more; and he certainly needs to do more in a second term to bring that wage disparity down.

• The president could easily have turned Governor Romney's unemployment data back against him: by pointing out the degree to which unemployment among women has been so heavy of late because of the concentration of women in public sector employment -- the very sector singled out by the Governor and his running mate for further curtailment as they balance the budget. Women currently make up just under half of the US labor force but three-fifths of state and local public sector workers. State and local employment has fallen by 765,000 since 2007 (before the recession), and would have fallen more but for the 2009 Obama stimulus package. 70.5 percent of the jobs lost were ones previously filled by women. Mitt Romney wants to shrink government further: "but one thing that happens when you shrink government is that women lose jobs." Romney the primary campaigner had been adamant that he, and he claimed also most Americans, didn't "want to hire more firemen, more policemen, more teachers." Apparently he does now want to hire more teachers, or at least to see more women back in employment. Has he really changed his mind, or is this yet another Romney "etch-a-sketch moment"? It is probably the latter; which is why it is safer to assume, we think, that the Romney distress here is simply crocodile tears in search of votes.

• The president could also have said that Mitt Romney's running mate is a long-time supporter of the partial privatization of Social Security, through the creation of Individual Saving Accounts. George W. Bush made that proposal the center-piece of his 2005 State of the Union Address, a proposal that Paul Ryan then loyally supported. But privatization of that kind necessarily threatens the long-term viability of Social Security, and particularly disadvantages women retirees. That is partly because women live longer than men, and yet rely more heavily than men on Social Security as their main/only source of pension. Social Security benefits are lower for women than for men, yet "for nearly three women in 10... Social Security is virtually the only source of income [90 percent or more]... and the percentage of female beneficiaries who rely on Social Security for virtually all their income almost doubles with age." Social Security is also critical to these women because women in general have less access to strong employer-provided pensions. This is a result both of the wage inequality mentioned by the questioner, and of the broken pattern of paid employment experienced by women, many of whom spend years out of the paid labor force looking after their young children. Indeed, many women come out of the paid labor force twice: once when young to look after children; and again later -- giving up careers to look after ageing parents. Mitt Romney may well decry the number of women in poverty, but unless he leaves Social Security benefits out of any federal budget cutting, he will make that poverty worse. Social Security lifted 8.4 million women out of poverty in 2010, dropping the poverty rate among women over 65 from 49% to just 11 percent.

• The president could also have pointed out that the Romney/Ryan proposals on health care reform will do more than deny women the new access to preventive medicine established by the Affordable Care Act. The Romney/Ryan proposals will also seriously impact the access of poor women to adequate health care, through the changes they propose in Medicaid. 'The Urban Institute estimated that the block grant proposal alone would lead states to drop 17-21 million people from Medicaid by 2021." Right now 70 percent of all Medicaid recipients are women, and 19 million poor women rely on Medicaid for their health coverage. Begin cutting programs as the 2012 Ryan budget proposed - "childcare assistance, Head Start, job training and housing and energy assistance would likely see a $291billion cut" -- and the burden on women, and especially poor women, would rise exponentially. It is not just contraception, vital as access to that is. It is also help with rental payments. It is food stamps. It is income support through TANF (Temporary Relief to Needy Families). Over 60 percent of food stamp recipients are women; 80 percent of the households now in receipt of housing vouchers are headed by women; and 85 percent of all adult TANF recipients are women. Cut those, and women suffer. We have already seen Romney-like austerity programs implemented within the European Union, not least in the United Kingdom; and the evidence there is overwhelming. Cutting welfare programs disproportionately impacts women -- especially women of color and women trapped in poverty. So what is Mitt Romney's greater priority: helping disadvantaged women or balancing the federal government's books? The president ought to ask, and we need to know.

• The president could then have gone one stage further in the second debate, had time allowed. He could have widened the agenda of "women's issues" in this campaign from simply reproductive and health rights to take in employment rights and the creation of level playing fields in the world of paid work. He could have pointed out how poorly the United States currently supports working mothers in families with young children -- poorly when compared to the support provided to child-rearing families in many of the major economies with which our exports compete. The United States does not even provide paid maternity leave. 169 other countries all do. (That puts us alongside Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland as laggards here!) We have no paternity leave. Sixty-six other countries already do. We have no paid leave for illness and family care. Yet at least 145 other countries "provide paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses, with 136 providing a week or more annually." We have no legislation on flexible working time (the Governor mentioned that, but implicitly left it to the discretion of individual employers). We have no nationally-funded system of child care, and local funding is patchy and insecure. Yet neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party platforms in 2012 even mentioned child care, though 11 million American children under the age of five now spend at least part of each week in child care. It is as though both parties are content to leave almost the entirety of the costs of raising children to families to handle alone. Yet those costs are huge: the latest figures from the Department of Agriculture suggest, a typical middle class "family's spending on a child born in 2009 would total $286,050 by age 17. A two-child family would cost about $600,000:" and all that before college fees kick in. Right now, the only families that can adequately balance work and home are the ultra-affluent ones, and that cannot be right.

If women are to participate fully in our national economy, as their superior educational performance suggests that they should, easing child-care for two-income and single-parent families should be high on the president's second-term domestic agenda. It isn't yet, though the case for making it so is now well established, not least by an outstanding recent report from the Center for American Progress, Our Working Nation. Last night, the question about gender inequality in the world of paid work served to remind us of just how much more sensitive to the actual needs of modern families the contemporary Democratic Party are when set against Tea Party Republicans. But it also reminded us of how much more sensitivity (and appropriate policy proposals) the Democrats need now to develop.

First posted with full academic citations at