President Obama was handed a gift in Tuesday night’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, but he failed to take full advantage of it. A woman in the audience named Katherine Fenton asked Obama, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” Obama could have talked about legislation in Congress to address just this issue, which he supports and Romney does not. But he didn’t.
Obama noted that he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and then he went on a tangent about how he improved college affordability by increasing Pell Grants. “We’ve got to make sure that young people like yourself are able to afford a college education,” Obama told Fenton. That’s correct, but it’s totally irrelevant. There are more women attending college than men. The problem is not that women are being disproportionately kept out of college due to lack of funds and therefore not getting jobs. It is that once they get jobs, they are paid less than men.
Romney bragged that he practiced affirmative action—although of course he did not call it that—in staffing his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts. He also noted that he accommodated women workers who needed flexible hours to juggle their work and family responsibilities. That’s nice, but it’s even more irrelevant than what Obama said. Practicing personal affirmative action or accommodating female employees is insignificant compared to the policies that as president you may impose on the rest of the country. That’s clearly what Fenton was asking about, and Romney gave her no answer at all. Will Romney require businesses to do anything to recruit qualified women or accommodate their needs? No. He just says the economy will grow so dramatically under him that it will happen automatically because everyone will be competing to hire and retain the best workers.
Initially, Obama did not even discuss Romney’s contorted position on the Ledbetter law. On the second go-round, Obama noted that when Romney’s campaign was asked by Sam Stein of the Huffington Post if Romney supported Ledbetter he was met with silence and told, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.” Obama then brought up other women’s issues, primarily pertaining to healthcare, on which he and Romney differ.
But Obama did not contest Romney’s false assertion in the debate that he supports the law. In fact, while Romney did eventually say he would not repeal it, he still refuses to say whether he would have signed it in the first place.
Obama completely failed to discuss the other ways in which Romney opposes pay equity. There is currently a Democratic bill in Congress, which Obama supports, called the Paycheck Fairness Act. It is much stronger than Ledbetter, which merely repealed the Supreme Court’s unreasonable ruling that a woman must bring a pay discrimination lawsuit within six months of her first paycheck, rather than within six months of discovering the disparity.