October 18, 2012, by Jonathan

Mitt Romney and Gender Inequality

The internet is abuzz with discussion of Romney’s comment, in the VP debate, about having a ‘whole binders full of women’; the internet memes are running amok. What is it about this comment that has prompted such levels of mockery?

Romney’s remark came in the context of his explanation, alongside his debating partner President Obama’s, of what would be done to rectify income inequality between men and women in the US. Romney responded by imparting an anecdote about how, when drawing up a shortlist for his cabinet as state governor, his team just couldn’t find qualified women, initially. Dismayed, Romney went to women’s groups who came up with ‘whole binders full of women’.

There are three problems with Romney’s claim. The first is that according to fact-checkers, it isn’t even true. The second is, it doesn’t answer the question (something all Nottingham students of philosophy understand the importance of).

But that is almost beside the point. Thirdly, even if it were true, and relevant, the remark belies Romney’s lack of understanding and concern for matters of gender inequality.

How so? The remark is all about Romney: look at what he did to go out of his way to help women. It isn’t about women, and it isn’t about gender equality.

The focus isn’t on the obstacles that women (all women, not just those applying for a job in Romney’s cabinet) might face; rather, it is on Romney’s efforts to have good statistics. It fails to show any recognition of the sorts of structural difficulties, in the way our workplaces and private lives are organised, that can hinder women’s full participation in the workplace.

If, as some feminist philosophers have argued, just institutions are ones which do not unfairly disadvantage individuals on the basis of arbitrary characteristics (such as gender, race, class), then addressing the structural problems of gender inequality is a matter of justice, not simply a matter of a helping hand.

What sort of structural problems are at issue? Some feminist philosophers have emphasised that, whilst women of course often can make a personal choice about whether to work or stay at home, those choices are made in contexts which set conditions on those choices, and unduly limit their options. These include the (thankfully, now shifting) expectation that women will be primary carer, the costs of child care, the difficulty of combining care roles with a full time job, the lack of access to family planning resources, the working environments women sometimes encounter (involving sexual harassment or subtle forms of discrimination), the differential recognition of the value of women’s endeavours.

But fear not, half of the voting population of the US! Romney cared enough about not having embarrassing gender statistics to go out of his way to help women. Oh wait, no, he didn’t…


Jules Holroyd


Posted in Ethics