10/17/2012 06:29 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Women, Toss the Binders -- It's Time to Advocate

By now, you've no doubt heard the fallout from Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney's comment during Tuesday night's debate noting "binders full of women." In the unlikely event that you haven't, here's a quick recap: When asked to articulate his stance on equal pay for equal rights, Romney recalled a time when, as governor of Massachusetts, he began a search for qualified women to fill his cabinet posts. In response, enthusiastic women's groups presented him with "binders full of women" who were a good fit for the job.

Almost immediately, the Internet lit up with incredulous comments from people across the globe. The prevailing sentiment was shock and disbelief that anyone in twenty-first century America -- especially a presidential candidate -- would be surprised to learn that there are thousands of women (binders full, in fact) who are beyond qualified to fill leadership roles.

Like our Secretary of State. Or, a certain billionaire media mogul. And how could we forget that in 2012, women held the top post at 18 Fortune 500 companies for the first time in history?

Surely, Governor Romney is out of touch. Sadly, he's not alone.

While I'm in no way suggesting that most men share Romney's sentiments or surprise, I am saying that we in this country have a long way to go before men and women are on equal playing field, both in the workplace and outside of it.

I speak from experience. As a Wall Street woman for over two decades, I know the realities of working in a male-dominated industry, often being the only woman in a room full of blue suits. And while equality was preached, it was not adhered to consistently.

I know that my male colleagues were given greater opportunity to achieve, and more often. I know I had to work harder and smarter -- not only in the professional arena -- but outside of it, weaving the responsibilities of my family life into what was already a very demanding career life. I know that even though I made money and achieved, I had double duty -- working to support my family, raising my kids, tending to the pets, and caring for my home.

I am in no way male-bashing. I know and appreciate that there are men who take on the housekeeping and childrearing roles while their wives work, and there are plenty of career men who share in those responsibilities. But exceptions notwithstanding, men by and large do not operate under the same dynamic. They don't have to work twice as hard to get half as far, fight for pay equity, clamor to have their opinions heard at work, balance work, kids and home, and then have anyone ask the insulting question, "can we find any qualified men?"

It's insulting, and women have a right to be angry.

But more importantly, we have a decision to make: How can we use our outrage productively? What can we do to emerge empowered, rather than victimized, by archaic attitudes similar to those voiced during Tuesday's debate?

The only answer, I believe, is for women to be our own best advocates. Being your own best advocate means that you don't compromise on your values and what you think is right. It means learning to be a skilled negotiator on your behalf (this applies especially to pay; it is well-documented that women tend to shy away from negotiating compensation). It means that you seek support when you need it, and aim to mentor other women along the way.

Most importantly, it means you raise your hand, step up to the plate and drive a stake into the ground. It means: Stand up for yourself. So, when the question "can we find any qualified women?" is asked, the resounding answer is, "Yes. Here we are."