Fact-checking Romney's "binders full of women" claim

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. AP Photo/Rick Wilking

In last night's second presidential debate, Mitt Romney inadvertently created an Internet sensationwhen he referred to the "binders full of women" he said he requested when seeking to hire women to top positions during his tenure as Massachusetts governor. Memes aside, Romney's essential claim - that he aggressively reached out to women's groups for help recruiting female employees after discovering most of the applicants were men - inspired some serious skepticism of its own.

Here's what Romney said when asked about his position on pay equity for women:

"Thank you. An important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I -- and I went to my staff, and I said, 'How come all the people for these jobs are -- are all men.' They said, 'Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.' And I said, 'Well, gosh, can't we -- can't we find some -- some women that are also qualified?' And -- and so we -- 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. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America. Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort."

In a report published shortly after the debate, David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix questioned the premise of Romney's assertion, arguing that the effort to employ more women in the Massachusetts government was actually spearheaded by a non-profit group called the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP), which was founded under the leadership of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus specifically with that goal in mind.

According to MassGAP, the group approached the gubernatorial candidates of both parties prior to the 2002 election and asked each to sign a pledge committing to make their "best efforts" to "ensure that the number of women in appointed state positions is proportionate to the population of women in Massachusetts," to "select a transition team whose composition is proportionate to the women in the Commonwealth;" and to "meet with MassGAP representatives regularly during the appointments process."

Both campaigns made a commitment to this process, and following Romney's election, MassGAP says it "formed committees for each cabinet post in the administration and began the process of recruiting, interviewing, and vetting women applicants. Those committees selected top applicants for each position and presented this information to the administration for follow-up interviews and consideration for appointment," according to a written statement the group released on Wednesday.

Thus, Romney's suggestion Wednesday night that he organically noticed a dearth of women applicants when filling his cabinet and subsequently decided to "go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet," is misleading. The process had been spearheaded by an independent group and was already well under way by the time he was governor.

An adviser to the Romney campaign with knowledge of Romney's hiring process acknowledged that the former governor had been approached about -- and agreed to -- the pledge before taking office, and that the outside group had already been engaging in independent outreach efforts to solicit resumes for women who would be willing to work in government. The adviser, however, argued that Romney  "actively sought" the binders out upon taking office because he wanted to make use of their resources.

"When Governor Romney came into office he undertook to fulfill his pledge. And while many of the top positions were filled by women who Gov. Romney found on his own through the transition process, through his business contacts, he also worked very cooperatively with the Massachusetts Women's Caucus and reached out to them to make use of them and their resources," the Romney adviser told CBS News. "We didn't have to accept those names, we didn't have to ask them for it to fulfill the pledge."

The adviser estimated that Romney ultimately hired about 10 women into those top positions, and that "roughly two or three" of them came through MassGAP's recruitment efforts, including one person who was simultaneously referred to the administration through business contacts. The recommendations were also helpful in filling other positions in the administration, according to the adviser.

MassGAP would not comment on whether or not Romney actively sought out the binders, but executive director Priti Rao told CBS News that the parties had previously agreed that regardless of who won the election, MassGAP would send them the resources -- ie, the binders -- they had gathered following the election.

"We proactively approached both candidates during the campaign," Rao told CBS News in an e-mailed statement. "Both candidates embraced our effort and assured us they would review the information we send. We then sent it [to Governor-elect] Romney after the election, as his campaign and MassGAP agreed we would do."

Jesse Mermell, executive director of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus from 2004 to 2008, said in a conference call with the DNC: "To be perfectly clear, Mitt Romney did not request those resumes...Both campaigns made a commitment to this process. Then after the election, our group approached the transition team with the resumes, or the so-called 'binders full of women.'"

According to a study by the University of Massachusetts Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy using data provided by MassGAP, the percentage of women appointed to senior-level positions in Massachusetts government did rise - from approximately 30 percent prior to the 2002 election to 42 percent by 2004. Among those appointed were Kerry Healey, who became Romney's lieutenant governor (and also served as the liaison in the process with MassGAP) and chief of staff Beth Myers. Between 2004 and 2006, the study says women made up just 25 percent of Romney's 64 new appointments, lower than when he was elected.

Some have also pointed out that Romney's record hiring women to top positions during his tenure at Bain Capital was lackluster: According to the Boston Globe, there were no women partners at Bain during the 1980s and 1990s, when Romney was CEO.

By contrast, over a quarter of President Obama's initial cabinet appointees were women. In the current Obama administration, eight of 23 - or 35 percent - of the president's cabinet or cabinet-rank positions are women.

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