Dumb quote of the day: Trapper Keeper edition

>> Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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 they 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 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 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 four years, 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 3 1/2 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 are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a — a flexible work schedule that gives women the opportunities that — that they would otherwise not be able to — to afford.

You could really pick from any number of dumb quotes last night's Presidential debate, but why not go with the one that's already become an Internet meme?  And this one really scores a kind of trifecta: surreal, instantly meme-able, and false.

Romney's line was a little surreal on multiple levels.  The first, of course, is the awkward phrasing that provoked the meme in the first place.  But then there's also a surreal quality to the actual content of the line: as Amanda Marcotte at Slate points out, Romney's proposed "solution" to pay inequality and unequal expectations of women in the workplace is to let the market sort itself out somehow.  Which is kind of a theme for the GOP these days--the market will solve everything.

How many times does this have to be pointed out: the reason we have all of these regulatory statutes in the first place is because the free market failed to take care of itself.  In other words, we already tried it their way, and it didn't work very well.  We don't have food inspections because it just seemed like an arbitrarily fun thing to increase the size of government, we inspect food because back in the day, we somehow kept finding rat turds in everything.  We don't regulate pharmaceuticals because government just likes getting its fingers in everyone's eyes, we do it because, between the guys selling their own urine on the carney circuit and the guys who sold pregnant ladies a sedative that caused their babies to be born with flippers, the idea that maybe you just should let people vote with their dollars to never buy that again seemed remarkably closing-the-barn-doors-after-the-horse-ran-away-and-died-and-then-the-barn-burned-down.  We regulate pesticides because deciding to boycott them after the last bald eagle dies seems kinda pointless (plus, anytime you want to boycott a product for any reason, the conservatives all get underwear-wedgies over unfair trade practices and censorship and stuff--funny how that works).  And we try to pass laws saying women ought to get the same benefits as dudes because after all these centuries in the labor force, somehow they still keep getting shafted.  Gods only know, it would be a lot cheaper and more efficient if we didn't need any regulations and laws because people could always be trusted to do the right thing, but as long as there are assholes who are willing to shit all over everyone else for even a momentary advantage (and one that will dirty their own nests in the long run, stupid motherfuckers), society has an obligation to say, "Uh, no, dude, just, no--you can't do that," and government is the mechanism through which we impose our cultural will.

But there's another reason that Romney's unsurprisingly retro, back-to-the-bad-old-days line bugs me, and it's something Matthew Yglesias, also at Slate, touches on really briefly--glances off of like a pebble being skipped across a stream, actually--before going on to make some other good points.  He writes:

I am favorably disposed toward both full employment and flexible workplace scheduling. But what Romney is saying here is that due to their family responsibilities women are burdened with an inherent disadvantage in the labor market. In conditions of full employment, firms do become desperate for workers and are willing to do things they won't do in weak labor market. High-margin businesses, for example, hand out raises to competent experienced workers. And firms of all kinds take risks on people they wouldn't otherwise go for—those who lack formal credentials, those who might have had legal problems in the past, smart people who seem to lack experience, and so forth. Romney's suggestion is that a woman—at least a woman with a family—is basically like a high school dropout with a felony conviction in his background. A marginally employable worker who'll get a job if and only if the labor market is super-tight. After all, everyone knows mom needs to be home at 5:00 to start cooking dinner.

But maybe dad should cook dinner!

Exactly!  But then Yglesias goes on to talk about his own family's experience, how his mom had an inflexible job, but luckily his dad was able to pick up the slack.  Which can take you all sorts of places that point up what's wrong with Romney's approach.  (E.g. that Romney's preference for married couples raising children is certainly laudable and we ought to encourage two-parent households, sure, but the reality is that this doesn't always happen--there's not just out-of-wedlock children, there are also families rent by divorce, left bereft by death, two-parent families that are effectively one-parent households because a job requires travel or even deployment, etc.--and so what are you going to do where there is no second parent to help with the load?)

And that takes us away from an often-buried point, which is that fair treatment for women in the workplace is not merely a women's issue.  Romney talks about flex time for women, which is wonderful and all, but we really ought to be talking about flex time for parents.  And I don't see how a perpetual pool of underpaid but equally-qualified laborers doesn't depress wages and benefits for everyone.

Indeed, one way to look at the problem of female equality in the workplace is to turn it around: the problem is not merely that women are penalized in the workplace for choosing to take care of families (or having the potential to make such a choice--childless women are implicitly punished for the possibility they might choose to have a child at some point and are therefore "unreliable" employees)--the problem is also that men are punished at home and in society by the expectation they will always choose work ahead of their children, that they will stay late at the office instead of leaving to take care of familial responsibilities, etc.

Call it the "Cat's In The Cradle" problem.  There was furor earlier this year over articles in The Atlantic and Newsweek by women struggling with the stress of "trying to have it all", a windmill that some feminists have been tilting at for decades.  Largely absent from the discussion was the fact that men have never actually had it all: the trope--acknowledged in plays, songs, novels, short stories, memoirs, films, television shows, et al.--of the absentee father who spends all of his time at the office and misses his children's first words, school plays, baseball games, graduations, etc. predates the Harry Chapin song by almost to the Industrial Revolution; what men did do, being the dominant gender and structuring everything patriarchally and all, was successfully convince themselves (and apparently, along the way, women) that being largely absent from the domestic sphere except in some kind of figurehead capacity was winning, Great American Novels and livers-destroyed-by-after-work-highballs notwithstanding, largely burying the domestic sphere except in a sort of lip-service way.  The punch line to every woman wondering how she's supposed to juggle making dinner every night with a professional career is that the emphasis on the professional career was always, at its heart, something we men have been conning ourselves into desiring for generations.

The solution isn't that women need to go back home.  The solution is that we, as a society, ought to be reevaluating what, exactly, our priorities are and making the playing field as compassionately gender neutral as biology permits (it's to be taken for granted that men, lacking certain plumbing, would never have to miss work to deliver a baby, though it ought to be a given right and society ought to encourage them to be present at their children's deliveries).  There shouldn't be a choice at all between career and family, they ought to be a pair of things together, with career accommodating family.  It's not just that women shouldn't be punished for doing what many men want and all men ought to do, it's that neither gender should be punished, and if this is not something American corporations can get their heads around, then, yes, it's time for society--acting through government, its tool for this kind of thing--to force the issue by defining a right to have a family without having to sacrifice one's livelihood, and a right to have a career without sacrificing one's family.

I doubt Mitt Romney is capable of understanding any of this, much less agreeing with it.  No doubt he feels comfortable with the choices he and Ann Romney have made regarding family and career, and that's fine insofar as the Romney family itself is concerned.  I certainly am not saying that if someone wants to spend all their time at work and none of it with their children, they can't do such an awful thing as that.  But I am saying that being able to do that by choice, as opposed to by necessity, is itself a position of privilege that Mitt Romney obviously takes for granted.  The Romney boys probably turned out well however they were raised, and the family certainly seems pretty close.  But Mitt and Ann Romney's choices were so wide open, they probably didn't know they were making them; it seems unlikely, given the kinds of things he says in public (or in semi-private donor events) that it's ever crossed Mitt Romney's mind that someone--a man, a woman--might not have any viable options at all, that it might not be a matter of working sixty hours a week because you want to get that promotion more than you want to see your kid's first marching band performance, but because that appears to be required if you don't want to be fired or, at best, stuck in a dead end rut for the next several decades; or that there isn't anyone else to pick up the kids after school, and if that means you get passed over again the next time there's a round of raises, well, gee, you can't blame your employer for giving the money to the guy who was willing to miss much of his kid's childhood.

I don't know that Mitt Romney's lack of understanding, empathy and compassion makes him a bad person in this context so much as it may make him regrettably ignorant and sheltered and unqualified to lead all Americans, even ones who never had the implicit and unspecified privileges that the wealthy are born into the way fish are born into water.  (Cue Pulp's "Common People"--if Mitt Romney was ever exposed to any mundane hardship, it was only as a tourist.)  I don't begrudge him those privileges, I just think he doesn't know the first fucking thing about anything, and his idea that an improved economy will just magically solve everything is merely yet another example of that.  Hell, I'm not even saying that Obama can do better when it comes to fundamental problems like this (though the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was undeniably one small step in trying to fix the whole cultural, socioeconomic mess); but at least he's not oblivious to it all, which is at least half of Romney's problem, the other chunks of Romney's problem being arrogance and apathy.

(Image from Binders Full Of Women submitted to Tumblr by Sue.)


Janiece Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 4:38:00 PM EDT  

Speaking anecdotally only, I think this might be a generational issue to a certain extent. Many of the strongest families I know have the female partner as the primary (or only) breadwinner, while the male partner is the one that puts in the sweat equity to make the family a successful unit.

In my own family, this arrangement works just fine, and the interesting thing about it is that the only people who seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around it is (some of) our older relatives. Relatives that wouldn't DREAM of denigrating a woman who made such a choice, but who feel it's somehow "unnatural" for a man to do so. I don't really care what they think, of course, but I find the generational difference interesting and believe that, culturally at least, the problem may take care of itself, much like the issue of gay marriage.

Maybe not soon enough, maybe not kicking and screaming, but eventually.

TimBo Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 6:04:00 PM EDT  

As the single [grand]parent raising three young boys, let me tell you that it's a game changer. When the boys were dumped on me I had to tell the company I had a contract with that I couldn't come into the office (200 miles away) again. Ever. Fortunately they needed me to complete a big project and agreed to me working from home, but the contract ends on Nov. 30 and I have to find a new one. Now instead of looking at anywhere in Canada or the US I can only look in my home town, Kind of limits my options.

On the other hand I wake the kids up in the morning (or they me), play with them in the evening and tuck them into bed at night. I get all the kisses and smiles, diapers and tears, and I only work 40 hours/week instead of 60-80. It's worth it.

If I hadn't been mostly raised by my father (my mother was sick in hospitals most of the time) I probably never would have attempted it. I've never tried anything harder in my life and I've never been more tired, and often really discouraged, but I wouldn't trade this for anything.

Anne C. Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 6:37:00 PM EDT  

(Sorry, OCD compels me to edit.)

My comment overlaps with Janiece's in that the most wonderful side effect of "women's lib" is that it has become "men's lib" too. I see more acceptance of the stay-at-home dad than ever (and they are generally doing a wonderful job). I'll agree though that that small gains that have been made in the last decade or so are a sign of the death of sexism in the same way having a black president is a sign of the death of racism. In that it isn't a sign of that at all. It is a step in the right direction and a reason for hope, but certainly not a reason to stop talking about it or pointing out how we can do better.

Eric Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 11:24:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, all.

I'd especially like to thank Tim, though, for pointing out something really important here that I missed: we need to understand that "parent" is a broad term when we're talking about work and family issues, and that it isn't just moms and dads, but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. One hopes that a company is willing to offer compassionate leave, flex time, and work-at-home options to an employee who is taking in or adopting children; if they aren't, and if this is something society is going to value (my personal opinion: it ought to be), then we need workplace laws that encourage, reward or mandate--whatever works best--these social values.

And at the very least, we need to recognize that this isn't just a gender and/or biological issue. That whether or not society is going to prioritize family through its laws and customs, the decision we make is one that affects not just women, but men; not just parents, but grandparents and other family members, etc.

Robbin Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 3:22:00 PM EDT  

Thanks for pointing this out, Eric. I was really disturbed by Romney's response to a question about equal pay for equal work. A question that should have been a no-brainer giveaway but turned out to be his defining moment in the debate.

The assumption that women are going to have more family obligations is one of the arguments for paying them less than men. So Romney actually, without being direct, argued that women SHOULD get 72 cents for the men's $1 (I forget what the average is now, but it's somewhere around there) because they need this flexible schedule that allows them to be home to cook the family their damn dinner....woman!

Fuckery nuts. I really hate this man.

And you know what I have to say about the workday? I don't have kids. But I still want to leave at 5:00 pm. And if other folks in the office have to leave at 4:30, and I have to stay late, this means I am coming to work at 10:30 the next day (I do this- it's called COMP TIME). How about a flexible schedule for everyone. How about Romney, you shut your mouth about gender politics because obviously your surprise over the fact that there were so many qualified women in those binders (after decades of running a business you didn't know any qualified women to bring along with you to government?) shows your ignorance.

Warner Friday, October 19, 2012 at 9:10:00 AM EDT  

I was a single father of an 18 month old, until my girlfriend moved in 4 years later. (We have been married almost 32 years now.)

I also in the late 80s early 90s managed a large electronics maintenance department (televsion network). One of the first things I did was tell the guys (100 % men), that while it had to be in pairs for safety reasons. I didn't care what hours they worked, they couldn't violate the union contract.

About one third choose to work 4 to midnight instead of the standard 8AM to 4 PM. At little cost to the company, I now had much greater coverage, including two that choose to work weekends and their output went up.

One guy who choose to work the afternoon shift, went from being absolutely useless to somebody who, on his own, figured out how to save us 5 figures a year on replacement B&W picture tubes.

By the time I left we had women in the group.

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