Mitt Didn’t Ask for ‘Binders Full of Women,’ But He Should Have

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Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images, Corbis

There are few things I love more than a good meme. If it can be GIF’d, tweeted, mocked, and then mocked on Tumblr again, I’m usually on board. Especially when the subject of the mockery is Mitt Romney. Like everyone else, I had several good laughs over the GOP candidate’s “binders full of women” quote from last night’s town-hall debate.

But then I realized that, creepy as that imagery is, the country would be better off if more powerful men took a cue from Romney on this one. He says that, as governor, he made “a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.” This is a pretty big statement, especially coming from a Republican candidate. We talk a lot about how diversity matters and how equal representation is important. But in most corners of society, especially the upper echelons of power, we haven’t figured out the best way to walk that talk. Usually when advocates suggest that we need policies in place to ensure our elected officials and CEOs and college admission boards are making a concerted effort to go out and find women and people of color, all political hell breaks loose. Just look at conversation surrounding the Supreme Court’s recent reconsideration of the University of Texas’s affirmative action policies.

But that statement got lost because of what Romney said next: “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.”

The meme moment! The quote that made bloggers go searching for images of vintage Trapper Keepers and stock photos of creepy bald guys with binders and Mean Girls GIFs. The left-leaning Internet collectively pointed and laughed at the idea of Mitt Romney knowing so few women personally that he had to consult a three-ring binder full of women.

Well, not quite. Boston journalist David Bernstein reports that while Romney did indeed find himself with a binder full of women’s names, it wasn’t something he requested. The binder was put together by MassGAP, a bipartisan group of women who joined forces in 2002 to push Romney’s incoming administration to hire more women. Did you catch that? The binder of women was assembled by women and pushed onto Romney’s desk, unsolicited. When we mock Romney’s reliance on it, we’re actually mocking a concerted strategy by an accomplished group of women to diversify their state government. Oops.

The binder-full-of-names approach is a time-honored way of getting people (mostly men, sure, but also women) in positions of power to do more than pay lip service to the idea of diversity. In my own industry, I got so sick of hearing male editors say over and over that they didn’t know or couldn’t find any great women journalists, so I created an online compendium of recent work by women. A digital binder full of women journalists, if you will. I have no idea if editors have turned to it when they’re looking to assign articles, but I do know that its very existence disproves a classic excuse for lack of gender balance in magazine bylines. It answers a very stupid but persistent question: Where are the women writers? Right here, in this binder that I can show to you.

Back to Mitt’s magic binder. As in journalism, there are many qualified women at all levels of the political system. And so MassGAP’s push to put more women’s names in front of the new governor was decently successful. MassGAP claims that between January 2002 and July 2004, 42 percent of Romney’s new appointees were women. Bernstein follows up with some sobering details, however: “Those were almost all to head departments and agencies that he didn't care about — and in some cases, that he quite specifically wanted to not really do anything. None of the senior positions Romney cared about — budget, business development, etc. — went to women.” Oof. But to be fair, of the 23 cabinet-level positions in the Obama White House, only eight are held by women. An improvement over the Bush administration? Sure. Still, not exactly a feminist utopia.

Watching Romney tout his appointment record at the town-hall debate last night, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit proud of him. Seriously! With the binders anecdote, he was essentially describing affirmative action: He realized he needed more diversity in his cabinet, and so he sought out qualified women he may not have otherwise considered. This is laudable. Shocking, even! Especially when you consider that, also in the first year of his governorship, Romney tried to quietly roll back the state’s affirmative action laws.

Honestly, it was a pretty minor clunk in my eyes, given that we all talk about identity politics this way — it's the way we talk about cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and our own workplaces, too. Hell, even the newsrooms that are currently making fun of that quote are in a perpetual game of "how to get and keep women and minorities."

So I’m laughing along with everyone else who’s scrolling through images of Ryan Gosling promising, “Hey girl, I won’t put you in a binder.” The thing is, I want to be put in a binder. (And, cough, not just by Ryan Gosling.) I want the top-level men in my profession to be thinking about recruiting people who don’t look like them and share their background. Making concrete lists of qualified applicants who haven’t rubbed elbows with the boss at a cocktail party is a great way to seek out qualified, diverse recruits for top-level jobs in a variety of industries. That is, if the recruiters are interested.

Romney claimed last night that “We're going to have to have employers in the new economy … that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they're going to be anxious to hire women." Indeed, we’re all hoping that employers will soon be clamoring to hire more workers. And if they are, I’d like those employers to request some binders — not because they’re “anxious” enough to resort to women, but because they’re eager to.