The Difference Between Equity and Binders Full of Anybody

This week's presidential debate highlighted the fact that there's a distinctive difference between getting invited to the party and actually having fun.

By Rinku Sen Oct 18, 2012

Maybe I have no sense of humor, but when Gov. Mitt Romney said the words "binders full of women" during this week’s debate, it didn’t occur to me to make an Internet joke, complete with visuals of feminine legs sticking out of binders. He seemed to have left out a word–maybe resumés?–but I sure didn’t predict multiple Tumblrs being built around it.

I was more struck by the fact that he answered a question about pay equity with a story about diversity hiring. If we had the language as a society to describe this difference, the jokes might have been more pointed. Diversity is about variety, getting bodies with different genders and colors into the room. Equity is about how those bodies get in the door and what they are able to do in their posts. A diversity approach has gotten us to the point where Romney could get a binder full of women’s resumés. (Though, notably, the real credit goes to the group MassGAP, which pushed the governor’s office to hire more women in high-level posts.) An equity approach is what would have forced him to address the pay gap, which I bet all the women in those binders have experienced.

Why does this distinction matter? After nearly 50 years of applying anti-discrimination laws, American workplaces are still dominated by white men. Men of color and all women have more access to some jobs than they used to, but the ranks of decisionmakers come nowhere close to reflecting our numbers in the nation as a whole. This is the root of the "tokenism" complaint that I hear constantly as I travel the country. Tokenism means that you can come to the meeting, but no one will pay any attention to what you say. It means that the workplace will open the door to you, as long as you look (to the extent possible) and act just like the white men who are already there. It means that you’ll get invited to the party, but you won’t be allowed to make any requests of the DJ or help set the playlist.

I’ve seen dozens of "diverse" workplaces in which all the people of color are in the manual jobs and all the women are doing clerical work. All work has dignity and value, but no one should be stuck in a position they’ve outgrown because employers segregate their workers by race and gender. In the high end of the restaurant industry, for example, I’ve heard a never-ending round of stories from men of color (because women still can’t get a foot in that door) about working as a busser for years, knowing every item on the menu, and never being able to get one of the front-of-the-house jobs because they don’t fit the profile of a high-end waiter.

Diversity is a start, a good start even, but it cannot be our end goal. The end goal has to be shared power, responsibility and reward–in short, equity. To get to equity, we have to promote fair treatment both before and after hiring. The second part of Romney’s answer last night was not terrible. Workplaces with flexible hours are a good thing. But flexibility itself doesn’t deal with the pay gap–indeed, it wouldn’t be odd to find employers using flex time as an additional reason to avoid paying women fairly.

President Obama addressed the pay gap question directly, but he, too, has a ways to go on this front. Early in his term, he was asked at a press conference how he planned to address the economic needs of black communities. He would do so by improving the overall economy, he said, because "a rising tide lifts all boats." Well, the rising tide may generate some resources for black communities and thereby preserve "diversity" in the economy, but it doesn’t deal with the enormous wealth gap between black and white families.

Such gaps are dangerous for our society. Studies have shown that economies with big income and wealth gaps have slower economic growth, and conversely that equity generates sustainable growth.

But even more importantly, these gaps are also threatening because they reinforce the notion that some people are simply worth more than others. That lesson runs counter to the ideals of fair pay and community-mindedness that I was always taught to champion, ideals that are brought forth every election season as candidates tout the greatness of the nation they wish to lead. Big gaps undermine our sense of community by causing division and resentment–the people left behind always trying to get ahead; the people ahead doing whatever they can to hold on to their leads. That doesn’t strike me as a great formula for national unity. A better formula would include moving beyond a commitment to simple diversity toward action that generates real equity.