Mitt Romney’s reference, during the second Presidential debates, to “binders full of women” became an instant viral phenomenon. And though it is safe to say that Romney could have conjured up a more artful way to reference the number of qualified female candidates he reviewed to fill cabinet positions during his time as Governor of Massachusetts, I feel that the focus on this inelegant turn of phrase neglects a larger point: binders full of women are an important tool to achieving gender diversity in leadership positions.

The Need for Binders

First, let us look at what Romney actually said:

“We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet…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.”

As the president of an executive search firm with over 25 years of experience, I am on the front lines in the important fight for gender diversity. My mandate is to find world-class talent for my clients, and an important part of my job is to ensure that women are well represented in each and every search I undertake. In the past year, I have been focused on building the largest global database of the best and brightest women around the world – i.e. binders full of women. In fact, I founded the WE – Women Executives Division of ECK Consulting in order to better serve my clients by tracking women working in the financial services industry.

In a blog post for The Harvard Business Review, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox writes:

“The need for binders in many organizations is real. It’s because they’ve neglected over the past 20 years to develop a pipeline of female talent in their own organizations. They will suffer the inevitable consequences — talent shortages, misunderstanding of their client bases and flawed decision-making.”

Because many women are frequently denied access to the level of sponsorship that their male peers receive, it is extremely important that search firms commit to presenting a deep and broad range of candidates.

The Private Equity Boys’ Club

Wittenberg-Cox criticizes Romney for creating a culture at Bain Capital where only 4 of the firm’s 49 partners are women, but, unfortunately, in the world of private equity, that level of gender imbalance is not unique. A study conducted by Harvard scholar Catherine Turco found that women represented less than 10% of the professional workforce in the private equity industry.

Dan Primack of Fortune writes:

“Private equity firms may have come a long way from the days in which it was literally impossible to find a female partner, but it has not come nearly far enough.”

Mitt’s Binders and MassGAP

As Romney’s campaign clarified after the debate, the binders full of women were not requested by the Governor, but were presented to Romney by MassGAP, a bipartisan group of women formed to address the lack of women in senior leadership positions in the Massachusetts state government. However, what truly matters is that Romney followed through by appointing 14 women out of his first 33 senior-level appointments.

The top tier of our government and our corporations have a gender balance problem. In order to achieve better balance our corporate and governmental leadership must be committed to change, and they must be supported by advocacy organizations, such as MassGAP, by executive search professionals, such as myself, and by countless other individuals and groups.

Achieving diversity in the workplace was once a question of legal accountability, instituted in order to avoid discrimination lawsuits. Then it became the “right” thing to do, yet still undesirable. Today, businesses and governments know that they must be diverse in order to stay competitive and relevant.

Instead of focusing on “binders full of women” let’s applaud the fact that both of our Presidential candidates were clamoring to prove how committed they were to fighting inequality in the workplace, and putting more women into leadership positions. Now, that’s real progress.

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