Binders Full of Women Show Romney Knows How to Hire

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By Paula Dwyer

Yes, it was phrased awkwardly. And yes, it instantly inspired laugh-out-loud mock Twitter handles, Facebook pages and web sites. But Mitt Romney's answer to one of the most important questions in last night's presidential debate -- how to improve the standing of women in the workforce -- was the correct one.

Romney said that, after becoming governor of Massachusetts in 2003, his staff compiled a male-only list of candidates for his cabinet, on the grounds that only they were qualified. Romney said no, I want to see some women candidates. “We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet," he said. “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.”

Now, it may be true that it didn't quite happen that way -- that Romney gilded the story a bit. Here's how the Washington Post's Greg Sargent put it in a blog post this morning:

The tale isn’t quite how he told it, according to Liz Levin, the chair of a women’s group that was right in the middle of the story at the time. In fact, Levin tells me, the groups initiated contact with him and urged him to hire more women — when he was still a candidate — and began creating the binders themselves on their own initiative before he took office. In fairness to Romney, she says, he did agree to work with them.

It really doesn't matter who initiated contact with whom before the election. What matters is that, once elected, Romney acted on their recommendations. The result was a far more representative leadership staff. In his 2003 cabinet, five out of 14 positions, or 37 percent, were filled by women. A woman lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, served alongside Romney for four years. A State University of New York at Albany survey concluded that Romney had more women in senior positions than any other governor.

It would be fair to criticize Romney for failing to maintain or improve the ratio of female cabinet officials over the course of his tenure -- by 2006 he had fewer women in his cabinet than when he started. But contrary to today's biting commentary, the Republican nominee's answer wasn't patronizing. It was the opposite. If he had gone with his staff's recommendations, which were limited to names gathered from their heavily male networks (many women have been casualties of this narrow-think, whether or not they are aware of it), there might have been zero women in the cabinet.

Romney did exactly what we want chief executives to do: broaden their outreach, open their eyes to new sources of talent. He responded to women's groups that said they could supply names of qualified candidates. They found many examples. He took their resumes -- the binders full of women -- back to his staff and said, in essence, "Don't tell me there aren't any qualified women out there." I say bravo, Mitt Romney.

If this were merely an example of affirmative action, Romney would have been satisfied to hire one or two token women. You might say: "This was 2003; what kind of Neanderthals needed to be told to hire women just nine years ago?" Sorry, but the old-boys network lives on, even today. Executives often fail to recognize how much they rely on it when hiring. It takes an enlightened leader to reach outside his comfort zone to recruit and hire candidates that don't look or think the same way he does, whether they are female, African-American, Hispanic or physically handicapped job-seekers. This doesn't mean hiring unqualified workers or using quotas. It does mean executives should conduct broader searches -- and the broads should welcome that.

(Paula Dwyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Oct/17/2012 16:56 GMT