What Women (in Binders) Want

A year from now, very few people are likely to be talking about “binders full of women,” but during election season just about anything can leap to the top of the national conversation.

This week, during the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a question about women in the workplace arose. In response, Romney said that he had worked hard to diversify his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts. “I brought us whole binders full of women,” Romney recounted of his recruiting efforts.

More significant was what followed. “I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible,” Romney said, recalling that that his chief-of-staff had said she wanted to be home by 5 o’clock to make dinner for her kids and be with them when they got home from school. “So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.”

The New York Times weighed in with an angry editorial, calling Romney’s comments “a cringe-inducing attempt to graft what he thinks should be 2012 talking points onto his 1952 sensibility,” adding that “true equality is not satisfied by allowing the little lady to go home early and tend to her children.”

In response, Times writer Ross Douthat wrote, “Back in nonpartisan reality, both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers are likely to cite part-time rather than full-time work as their ideal professional situation. Not necessarily because they want to cook more meals for their children, true, but almost certainly because they like the idea of ‘being with them when they get home from,’ just as Romney put it.”

Peter Drucker considered the age of knowledge work to be hugely consequential for women, since the requirements of such jobs are in no way gender-specific. Companies that first recognized the benefits of an expanded workforce prospered as a result. As we’ve noted before, Drucker, writing in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, cited Citibank as a textbook example of thriving because of “its early realization of the movement of young, highly educated and highly ambitious women into the workforce.”

President Jimmy Carter Signing Extension of ERA Ratification, 1978. Image source: US National Archives

But Drucker also felt that women and men were likely to desire different structures and arrangements in the workplace. “The working woman may require a different job structure appropriate to her realities and conditions,” Drucker suggested in Management: Tasks, ResponsibilitiesPractices. “Women with children, for example, often need part-time work or flexible hours. And for married women, retirement pensions are often of little interest compared with higher cash incomes.”

As for the idea that society should ignore or eradicate such differences, Drucker thought this to be a monumental turn. “Today’s feminism, especially in its radical form, fights as discrimination and as oppression woman’s role as ‘homemaker’ and child-care provider,” Drucker wrote. “This development, well outside of anything that traditional economics, sociology and political science ever considered to be within their purviews, may well be a seen a century hence as the distinctive social innovation of the 20th century. It is a reversal of all history and tradition.”

What do you think: Is it reasonable or unreasonable to expect that women would want different work patterns and compensation structures than men do?