In the wake of the election season, speculation has abounded over the cause of Obama’s victory. Numerous political outlets cite the importance of female voters in the Republican defeat. The criticism of the Republican “war on women” has not subsided in the aftermath of Obama’s reelection. While Republicans are notorious for their regulatory policies concerning social issues, the attacks on Romney’s campaign took a vigorous new turn after the Presidential debate on October 16th.
Outrage surrounded the debate after Mitt Romney made his comment about “binders full of women.” The internet was set ablaze within minutes of the comment, sparking the creation of Facebook pages, Tumblr blogs, and even the creation of the web site bindersfullofwomen.com. Critics across news media and social media have accused Romney of objectifying women with his comment. Given the crudeness of his delivery, it’s easy to see why.
Despite the negative response, what Romney advocated was the same policy many liberals advocate. Romney said he asked for “binders full of women” because he was upset that there were too many men and not enough women who applied for cabinet positions in the state government of Massachusetts. Therefore, Romney endorsed the practice of selectively seeking out female applicants, reflecting the belief that if men and women are equal, then each gender should be in balance in every context. In doing so, Romney effectively endorsed a form of discriminatory hiring by selecting candidates for positions because of their gender. And despite the criticism, Romney was only trying to align himself with the view the left has long held: that special policies are needed to bring about enforced equality through a kind of reverse discrimination shrouded in more benevolent terms.
As an example of the left’s view, President Obama noted in his response to the question on income equality between the sexes that the first bill he signed during his presidency was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which aimed to extend indefinitely the time limits for suing employers over pay discrimination. The goal of the law is to correct what is seen as unjust inequalities in pay between the sexes. The law falsely assumes that sexist discrimination is the likely cause of what income inequality there is between the sexes. But when economists control for those cases in which women choose to leave work or spend less time at work to have a child, which accounts for why they may secure seniority at a later date and as a group may make less than men, the gender gap in pay largely disappears. Therefore differences in pay between women and their counterparts who have made more career-centric decisions, regardless of sex, is hardly indicative of sexist discrimination.
Alleged “equality” policies seek to unilaterally remedy a cause of pay differences that is not nearly as predominant as it leads us to believe. The idea that women as a class suffer from discrimination fails to see women as individuals, just as Romney’s comments crudely characterized individual women as nothing but names in a binder. Individual women may choose to prefer more leisure time over greater work hours, and give up higher wages and seniority in favor of a flexible schedule, thereby affecting the average income of women, while other women may make more career focused choices. But assuming that the average represents each woman casts women as members of a special group, in need of special protection from other groups, as if women should be thought of and treated with special care by everyone else.
Discriminating between individuals on the basis of sex or other factors irrelevant to personal merit is wrong, precisely because it identifies an individual’s value with the characteristics of other members of some group. If discrimination against women is a problem, it is not corrected by implementing further discrimination against anyone with merit. If a man makes more than a woman because he has chosen to stay with the company and made career-focused decisions, he is treated unfairly when the woman can sue to be paid as much as he is paid. It is just as unfair to more senior women who have also chosen to make career-oriented decisions.
Women ought not to be regarded as members of a sex who also just happen to be individuals. They should be regarded as individuals who also just happen to be women. They should be treated as individuals with unique goals and circumstance who make unique decisions. In those cases where irrational discrimination truly exists, we should rightly condemn it. Sexual discrimination is wrong in all cases; it doesn’t matter if the discrimination is helpful or hurtful to the receiving party. If companies truly want to prevent unjust discrimination in pay and hiring, they ought to employ individuals based on their qualifications and their ability to perform. We shouldn’t be seeking binders full of women, or binders full of men, or binders full of anyone—except individuals who are appropriately qualified and paid accordingly.