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Joan C. Williams's picture

Co-written by Katherine Ullman.

"Binders full of women." We all know what Mitt Romney meant during last night's presidential debate when he discussed his "effort" to recruit more women during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts. But what he said spread like wildfire across the internetand produced some amusing results.

Our personal favorites? A picture of young Patrick Swayze with the caption "Nobody puts Baby in a binder." And a glum-looking Big Bird holding a binder labeled "Women" on a Sesame Street stoop.

We are happy that the topic of women at work was introduced during last night's debate, which was notably moderated by the first woman in 20 years.

But we are not happy that Mitt Romney took credit for the hard work of MassGAP--a bi-partisan coalition committed to increasing the number of women leaders within the Massachusetts government--which is the group actually responsible for the infamous "binders." According to astudy the group co-authored with the University of Massachusetts' Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy, 42% percent of the new gubernatorial appointments made by Governor Romney between 2002 and 2004 were women. This was not because Governor Romney looked around and asked, "Where are the women?" : this was because an organization dedicated to women's advancement took an active role in recruiting qualified women candidates prior to and following the results of the 2002 gubernatorial election.

Despite MassGAP's successes in the first years of the Romney administration, the percentage of new female appointees later fell to about 25%; Romney ended his tenure as governor with fewer women in senior-level positions than when he started. Of this, the report co-authored by MassGAP advised, "Continued efforts should be made to monitor administrations throughout the full course of a governor's term." This does not sound like a leader committed to appointing binders upon binders of women.

What Romney did last night was a very public example of "The Stolen Idea," a phenomenon women regularly face at work. Here's how it usually happens on the ground: A woman mentions a potential solution to a problem in a meeting, perhaps timidly so as not to seem overly aggressive, and her idea is largely ignored. Minutes later, a male colleague pipes up and slightly rephrases the woman's idea to the group; the group is impressed with the idea, and agrees to implement it. The man is commended for his problem-solving skills and creativity.

The women Joan interviewed for The New Girls' Network--a project that seeks to combine social science and the savvy of successful women to uncover individual strategies for navigating gender bias at work--often recount these stories. She has binders full of them. One "stolen idea" may not seem like something to make a big deal over, particularly in an environment where women face social costs for being seen as anything other than a good team player. But over time, these "stolen ideas" can add up; the women doing the good work--but not getting credit for it--may be seen as lacking initiative or leadership skills and those perceptions will undoubtedly linger as they seek to move up the ladder.

One woman Joan interviewed described her experience with "The Stolen Idea" as "offering up a thought, an idea, and having someone speak over it. Typically, in my experience, it tends to be a male who will speak over the point... Someone may bring up the same issue later in the conversation and restate precisely (or close enough) what you offered up to the audience, without attribution or acknowledgement."

How do these women deal? One woman uses this phrase to subtlety turn the table: "Interesting that you should say that. That's exactly the point I was trying to make."

With the presidential election only weeks away, MassGAP set the record straight. It was a smart move for them and an important move for our country. But on the ground in day-to-day professional interactions, claiming credit is risky for women in workplaces still designed for and dominated by men.

"The Stolen Idea" got its fifteen minutes of fame during last night's presidential debate. Let us give credit where credit is due now, and take a good hard look at what both candidates can offer women who work in the future.

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