In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?
Obama was the first to answer, and he did with a personal story:
Well, Katherine, that’s a great question. And, you know, I was raised by a single mom who had to put herself through school while looking after two kids. And she worked hard every day and made a lot of sacrifices to make sure we got everything we needed. My grandmother, she started off as a secretary in a bank. She never got a college education, even though she was smart as a whip. And she worked her way up to become a vice president of a local bank, but she hit the glass ceiling. She trained people who would end up becoming her bosses during the course of her career.
She didn’t complain. That’s not what you did in that generation. And this is one of the reasons why one of the first – the first bill I signed was something called the Lily Ledbetter bill. And it’s named after this amazing woman who had been doing the same job as a man for years, found out that she was getting paid less, and the Supreme Court said that she couldn’t bring suit because she should have found about it earlier, whereas she had no way of finding out about it. So we fixed that. And that’s an example of the kind of advocacy that we need, because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that’s why we’ve got to fight for it.
It also means that we’ve got to make sure that young people like yourself are able to afford a college education. Earlier, Governor Romney talked about he wants to make Pell Grants and other education accessible for young people.
Well, the truth of the matter is, is that that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve expanded Pell Grants for millions of people, including millions of young women, all across the country.
We did it by taking $60 billion that was going to banks and lenders as middlemen for the student loan program, and we said, let’s just cut out the middleman. Let’s give the money directly to students.
And as a consequence, we’ve seen millions of young people be able to afford college, and that’s going to make sure that young women are going to be able to compete in that marketplace.
But we’ve got to enforce the laws, which is what we are doing, and we’ve also got to make sure that in every walk of life we do not tolerate discrimination.
That’s been one of the hallmarks of my administration. I’m going to continue to push on this issue for the next four years.
As a student of politics, what President Obama did here was a very old form of debate: projecting his own personal story, one well documented, to the audience. They all know that single mother: abandoned by a husband, left alone with their young child. Some are that single mother. They all know that woman unable to break the glass ceiling. It is Obama’s way to tell them “I’m with you.” He reached out and shared part of himself with the audience, both there and at home.
He then used that as a platform upon which to make his case, arguing for an equal day’s pay for an equal day’s work. Once the story–the hook–was put out, the remainder was simply bullet points talking about educational grants, law enforcement, the details most people do not care about. While important, they can drag out any discussion, and the President wisely avoided this pitfall.
Then came Mitt Romney’s turn to answer:
Thank you. An important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men.
And I – and I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are – are all men.” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we – can’t we find some – some women that are also qualified?”
And – and so we – we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.
I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.
I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.
Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because 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.
We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women. In the – in the last women have lost 580,000 jobs. That’s the net of what’s happened in the last four years. We’re still down 580,000 jobs. I mentioned 31/2 million women, more now in poverty than four years ago.
What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.
This is what I have done. It’s what I look forward to doing and I know what it takes to make an economy work, and I know what a working economy looks like. And an economy with 7.8 percent unemployment is not a real strong economy. An economy that has 23 million people looking for work is not a strong economy.
An economy with 50 percent of kids graduating from college that can’t finds a job, or a college level job, that’s not what we have to have.
I’m going to help women in America get good work by getting a stronger economy and by supporting women in the workforce.
While a noncommittal answer, Romney’s comments fell apart in short order. One, his comment about “binders of women” has become the new hot meme of the moment, especially on Twitter. Next, it was not even true at all, as reported by David S. Bernstein. Instead of Romney seeking out candidates himself, a leading women’s advocacy group discovered that Massachusetts had only 30% top appointed women in positions and took the initiative to promote qualified female candidates for positions to Romney themselves. Even with this push, the percentage of women in leadership positions under Romney actually declined. (With Governor Deval Patrick at the helm, this percentage is rising again.)
Then there was his condescending comment about a woman needing to be home by 5 to be cooking dinner for her kids. While he might have meant it as an anecdote, it instead came across as out of touch and chauvinistic.
Obama’s response to the former Governor was quite telling:
Katherine, I just want to point out that when Governor Romney’s campaign was asked about the Lilly Ledbetter bill…whether he supported it? He said, “I’ll get back to you.” And that’s not the kind of advocacy that women need in any economy. Now, there are some other issues that have a bearing on how women succeed in the workplace. For example, their healthcare. You know a major difference in this campaign is that Governor Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health care choices that women are making.
I think that’s a mistake. In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a – a health issue, it’s an economic issue for women. It makes a difference. This is money out of that family’s pocket. Governor Romney not only opposed it, he suggested that in fact employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage.
That’s not the kind of advocacy that women need. When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country. And it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work. When we talk about child care, and the credits that we’re providing. That makes a difference in whether they can go out there and – and earn a living for their family.
These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.
And one of the things that makes us grow as an economy is when everybody participates and women are getting the same fair deal as men are.
And I’ve got two daughters and I want to make sure that they have the same opportunities that anybody’s sons have. That’s part of what I’m fighting for as president of the United States.
Obama brings up Romney’s own public statements, and bludgeons him with them. His attacks on Planned Parenthood are not just about abortion, they are about cancer screenings; and this is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to boot. The concerns of cancer screenings are brought up every time someone goes through a checkout line at the grocery store with debit card machines asking people to donate, and here is the President of the United States bringing it up in a live town-hall debate. Then he neatly ties up the response with the direct reference to his own daughters, and his hope for their futures, as well as a reminder that he has more riding on supporting women’s health initiatives than just votes. He has some very direct reasons to fight for the rights of women, and he just reminded all of America of that.
For most men, we passed on “binders of women” after our teen years, where we used binders to hide the pictures of women that we did not want our mothers to find. Romney brings it up on national television and becomes the national laugh track. By this time tomorrow, all of the late night talk shows will have made the connection. The clean-cut member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints now will be forever tied with well-read copies of Hustler.