Mitt Romney, a career businessman, said during Tuesday's debate that he was unable to find qualified female candidates for positions in the Massachusetts state government when he was governor, and that he had to instruct his staff to "find some women that are qualified."
Romney was responding to an unexpected question about women's roles in the workforce posed by an attendee at the contentious town-hall style debate in Hempstead, N.Y. The question, "In what new ways do you plan to correct inequalities in the workplace, specifically women who earn 70 percent of what their male counterparts earn?" received a quick answer from President Barack Obama, who emphasized that he was raised by a single mother, and added that his grandmother "hit the glass ceiling" at her job at a regional bank and "trained people who would end up becoming her bosses."
"She didn't complain, which is not something you did in that generation," the president said. Obama went on to describe his successful passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides women with broader options for filing charges related to unfair pay than they've had in the past.
Asked to respond, Romney opened with the fact that he learned a "great deal" about women's equality when, as a first term governor-elect in late 2002, all the applicants for cabinet positions "seemed to be men."
Romney said he asked, "why are all the these applicants men?" and was told, "well, these are the people that are qualified." Rommey said he replied, "Can't we find some women that are qualified?" Romney said he and his staff, "we went out and found women that were qualified to be part of our cabinet."
What Romney failed to mention was that his lieutenant governor during the four-year term from 2002-2006 was a woman, Kerry Healey. It's also worth noting that Romney succeeded a female governor, Republican Jane Swift, and ran against a female Democrat Shannon O'Brien, to win the governorship. During the race, Romney's campaign portrayed O'Brien in TV ads using a Bassett Hound intended to signal that O'Brien was "asleep on duty" while special interests raided the state coffers.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday night Romney's example of having to specifically seek out "some women that were qualified" appeared to undercut a fundamental Republican ideal about hiring: that people should not be given an advantage based on their gender or race.
Republicans have long opposed affirmative action in hiring, as well as many forms of restitution for women and minorities who believed they'd been discriminated against in hiring and promotions. Most notably, the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution failed to garner enough votes for ratification by its 1982 deadline.
In 2010, women still earned 77 cents to every dollar earned by men, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Obama claimed his mother "hit the glass ceiling." The statement was in reference to his grandmother.