Apparently, every employer who wants to help women break through the glass ceiling just needs to go out and look for female candidates to put in their binders. That’s what Mitt Romney did when he was putting together his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts.
According to Mr. Romney, once you have successfully hired these high-powered women, all you have to do is make your work schedule woman-friendly. As long as you make schedules flexible enough to fit around dinner times and teacher workdays, you can be assured that you’re providing your female employees with equal opportunities for success.
But this whole notion of binders full of women and specialized schedules for female professionals still rests on several unstated assumptions and stereotypes. Why do there have to be separate binders for male and female candidates? Is Mr. Romney advocating a gender-based, private affirmative action program? And why do only female professionals deserve exceptionally flexible schedules and an uncontested reason to leave the office before dinner? Shouldn’t fathers have the right to eat with their kids?
If we had gender-based, private affirmative action for hiring, we would be admitting that there is some fundamental difference in the quality of work that men and women do. Or at least a difference in men and women’s professional abilities. If your gender and sex were truly irrelevant to your ability to be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, cabinet member or any number of other types of professionals, then legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act should fly through Congress with only the smallest of bumps. Instead, women are still paid less than men, and not because we’re dropping out of the labor force left and right to have babies. Instead, we are judged and evaluated on the basis of our gender. Instead, we’re evaluated based on our likely fertility.
This fertility analysis may be subconscious, but it remains true that successful professional women, and particularly those in the public sphere, adopt a distinctly masculine persona. We admire (or despise, depending on our political leanings) the likes of Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice as forces of nature, women who have overcome the odds of their gender to stand strong among some of the world’s most powerful men. Presumably, these are the women Mitt Romney would put in his binders. At the other extreme of the (potentially subconscious) fertility analysis is the stereotypical secretary. Although we no longer live in the age of the highly sexualized office space of Mad Men, an “executive assistant” applicant is still evaluated on the basis of her sex appeal, in addition to considerations of secretarial skills.
So if employers really want to help women break through the glass ceiling, they should make a conscious effort to combine and coalesce their separate male and female applicant binders.
Of course, some examination of an applicant’s family situation is perfectly reasonable. It is not sexist or misogynist to recognize that a single mother with three kids will probably need a more flexible schedule and will probably use more vacation days during school breaks than a single male applicant without any children. Family responsibility should not automatically be associated with women, though. Not only do children and their parents both benefit from increased “family time” such as family dinners, but the division of parenting roles has also begun to change. Certain employers, including Duke, have even recognized this trend by instituting general paternity leave policies. So instead of looking for binders full of women to balance out the sexes, employers should begin by categorizing applicants by skill level and, where time commitment is an issue, personal responsibilities.
That way, every professional can choose to make certain sacrifices for the benefit of his or her career. If you want to work from nine to five, five days a week, maybe you shouldn’t choose to become an emergency room doctor or a corporate attorney, or go to work on Wall Street. As much as ’90s babies love to have everything as soon as humanly possible, Google and Facebook and Twitter can’t help you Instagram your way to the best of your personal and professional worlds. No matter how you filter it, you can’t have everything.
Most of all, it is essential to remember that we cannot just rely on employers to be gender-blind and responsibility-conscious in their hiring processes. This is only one element of a much larger puzzle. We need to legislate equal pay for men and women. We need to change popular conceptions of gender roles. We need to reorganize the filing system we use to categorize people every day. The post-structuralist in me wants to throw all those binders in a nice big recycling bin and evaluate each person as an individual, but unfortunately that approach is practically inefficient.
Joline Doedens is a first-year law student. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow Joline on Twitter @jydoedens.