On Tuesday night, Mitt Romney and President Obama met for the second of three presidential debates. During the town-hall-style debate, a young woman named Katherine Fenton asked a question about how each candidate would address the issue of pay equity -- "specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn."
President Obama recounted the problems his grandmother had as a working woman and the glass ceiling, outlined why the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was one of the first bills he signed into law as president, and how he's expanded access to higher education.
Romney, on the other hand, gave a rambling response that has spawned the "binders full of women" meme you've probably seen. With regards to his now-infamous binders, Romney said that as governor of Massachusetts he asked for more women candidates for cabinet positions and was brought "binders full of women" qualified for the jobs (a story that has since been outed as a lie).
Romney went on to talk about how he believes in greater workplace flexibility for women. "Wow!" I thought, are we really talking about workplace flexibility issues in a national debate? But my hopes came crashing down. Romney said:
I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can't be here until 7 or 8 o'clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o'clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let's have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you
I get what he's saying -- as a working mom myself, I often feel guilty when I can't be with my kids as much as I'd like or when I'm too busy at work to get home in time to cook dinner. But let's please not insinuate that women need flexibility so that they can leave work early to go home to cook and clean. "If you're going to have women in the workforce you need to be more flexible" is akin to saying "If women are going to work in addition to doing the jobs they're 'supposed' to be doing, you need to be more flexible."
The majority of American families are composed of two breadwinners -- two parents who both have paying jobs. Where one parent used to hold a paying job while the other was responsible primarily for the home and family, both parents now work and divvy up childcare and household chores, which can cause conflict between work and home duties. Moms and dads are equally capable of making dinner and getting the kids from school, so why do we need to single out women as needing flexibility? Flexibility is not a women's issue -- nor should it be. Too often, women enter the workforce and work just as many hours as their husbands, but find themselves still bearing the majority of domestic responsibilities.
In a recent study, the Families and Work Institute found that men are spending more time with their children during the workweek and report increased feelings of frustration about conflicts between work and family responsibilities. Flexibility is part of the solution -- for men and for women. If we focus only on giving women flexibility, we perpetuate the idea that while women can hold jobs, they are still the ones who should be responsible for taking care of children and home. Cracking the glass ceiling isn't just about making sure women have opportunities to work and receive equal pay and fair treatment, it's about women and men taking on equal responsibilities in all areas of life.