Obama vs. Romney: Who Is Better For Women?

Obama, Romney debate about working womenBefore the debate Tuesday evening, Romney had successfully obliterated Obama's lead, almost entirely thanks to women voters. According to a Pew poll, Obama was ahead a staggering 18 points among women, which was thoroughly quashed by his wearied-professor performance.

Winning women is a key to a November triumph, something Romney knows well, having lost women by 2-1 in his Senate defeat against Ted Kennedy in 1994. The Democrats have painted Republicans as in "a war against women" with their social policies, and Republicans have accused their opponents of bludgeoning women with their economic ones.

But the second debate was the first time the two presidential candidates actually discussed the double-X-chromosomed half the population, which launched a thousand memes, and also exposed some stark differences. So what did the debate tell us about their respective records on working women and the female-oriented policies they may push forward, if given the chance over the next four years?

Women and Jobs
  • Obama's position: Public money would help bring back women into the workforce.
  • Romney's position: Obama's economic policies have been bad for women.

"In the last four years, women have lost 580,000 jobs," Romney asserted at the second debate. "That's the net of what's happened in the last four years."

Working women have taken a battering in the employment market in the last four years; while working men have actually lost more jobs in the recession, women continued to lose them for most of the recovery, as squeezed state budgets shed public sector jobs. It's true that women lost a total of 580,000 jobs between January 2009 and March 2012, but in the past six months women have gained 300,000 jobs -- bringing the sum to 283,000.

Many of the jobs that working women lost were teaching positions; a recent White House report found that more than 300,000 education jobs had disappeared since the end of the recession. Obama called on Congress in August to release billions of dollars to hire more teachers -- an idea that Romney has resisted, saying teachers are a state and local issue, not a federal one. He's dubbed these kinds of policies "trickle-down government."

Equal Pay
  • Obama's position: Pass laws that give women more protections from pay discrimination.
  • Romney's position: Create a pro-business climate so that more women will have jobs.

When asked what they would do about the enduring pay gap between men and women, Obama emphasized that the first bill he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the amount of time women had to file an equal pay lawsuit (Lilly Ledbetter discovered she had been paid less than her male coworkers for her whole career more than 180 days after her first paycheck, so was past the statute of limitations).

Although he did not mention it in the debate, Obama also pushed for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act earlier this year, which would have required employers to prove that differences in pay were based on real things (qualifications, education, experience) and not gender. It also made violators of sex discrimination laws liable for more damages.

More:Presidential Debate Scorecard: Who Told The Truth, Who Didn't

Senate Republicans filibustered the bill, saying it would lead to a flood of spurious lawsuits, and scare employers from hiring. The Romney camp refused to say what its candidate thought about this bill or the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but a campaign spokeswoman said, "Of course Gov. Romney supports pay equity for women. In order to have pay equity, women need to have jobs, and they have been crushed in this anemic Obama economy, losing far more jobs than men. As president, Mitt Romney will create a pro-jobs business climate that will put all Americans back to work."

Promoting Women
  • Obama's Position: Actively tries to find and promote qualified women, at least on the public stage.
  • Romney's Position: Actively tries to find and promote qualified women, at least on the public stage.

A key part of the wage gap is the fact that women occupy fewer positions of well-paid power. When he was first elected governor in 2002, Romney told the crowd, all the applicants for cabinet positions were men, so he made a concerted effort to recruit more qualified women. And women's groups brought him "whole binders full of women," he added (to the squeals of the Internet).

But as the Boston Phoenix's David Berstein points out, those "binders full of women" were compiled even before Romney was elected, by a bipartisan coalition of dozens of women's groups formed to combat the low representation of women in senior roles of state government.

Regardless, Romney took up the recommendations with zeal. In 2002, women held approximately 30 percent of the top high-level appointed positions in Massachusetts, and between January 2002 and July 2004, 42 percent of Romney's new gubernatorial appointments were women. Massachusetts then ranked first in the nation in the percentage of women holding top state positions, according to a survey by the State University of New York, and the Women's National Republican Club presented Romney its 2005 Exemplary Leadership Award for this achievement.

Romney was less successful, however, at promoting women in the private sector. Bain Capital was overwhelmingly white and male during Romney's tenure, as was the entire field of private equity. Consulting is "a profession that has yet to attract many women and minorities," Romney said during his Senate race against Ted Kennedy.

More:Obama Campaign Calls Out Romney's '12 Million Jobs' Plan As Phony

Obama also has done a decent job of bringing women into high level positions -- seven of his 22 initial cabinet or cabinet-level appointments were women (including Hilary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, and Kathleen Sebelius), and his two Supreme Court appointments were too. Soon after taking office, he also created a new executive council on women and girls.

But in his book "Confidence Men," Ross Suskind quotes former Communications Director Anita Dunn as saying the White House "actually fit all of the class legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women."

Flexibility in the Workplace
  • Obama's Position: The government should support more workplace flexibility for everyone.
  • Romney's Position: Employers should recognize that women may need flexibility.

Romney said that he was also able to recruit good women because he understood "that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible." He mentioned his chief of staff, who needed to be home by 5 o'clock to cook dinner for her two children.

Obama has publicly recognized that flexibility is an issue that affects women more, but at a May 2010 White House forum on workplace flexibility, he mentioned that there are also men who want to spend more time with their children, and sons who are caring for aging parents.

"So let's be clear: Workplace flexibility isn't just a women's issue," he told the crowd. "It's an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses. It affects the strength of our economy -- whether we'll create the workplaces and jobs of the future we need to compete in today's global economy."

Obama supports the Healthy Families Act, which would mandate that employers give their workers an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Romney has not endorsed the bill.

Employer-Provided Birth Control

Obama's Position: Employers should provide free birth control or offer insurance plans that do.
Romney's Position: Employers should not have to provide birth control if it goes against their faith.

Birth control popped up in Tuesday's debate, with Obama standing by his health care law provision that took the existing law -- that companies that provided health insurance had to offer birth control -- and took away co-pays for women. Obama slammed Romney for supporting legislation that would allow any employer to opt out of this law if it violated their religious beliefs (an exemption already exists for churches, synagogues and other houses of worship).

"I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not," Romney fired back. "Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives."

And while Romney may support the availability of contraception, he does not think employers and health insurers should have to provide it to women for free. In an August TV ad, Romney accused Obama of launching a "war on religion" through his health care law. But even if he repeals it as president, religious colleges and hospitals will still have to provide birth control -- because that is the law already.

Obama, Romney Clash Over Women's Issues in Debate

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