“I said: ‘Well, gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified? And so 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.”

— Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during presidential debate, Oct. 17, 2012

Mitt Romney shared this anecdote when asked to discuss pay equity for women during Tuesday’s presidential debate. The story seemed to prove the GOP candidate’s sensitivity toward workplace inequality, but critics say he simply sidestepped the issue by not addressing it directly.

The Twitter-sphere quickly lit up with comedic chatter about Romney’s reference to “binders full of women,” but a bigger issue arose shortly after the debate ended. The Phoenix, a Boston-based publication, reported that the candidate had overstated his involvement in starting the hiring initiative. What’s more, it said the number of women who held senior-level positions with the Republican’s government actually declined at the end of his term.

Let’s look at the facts to determine whether Romney told this story accurately.

The Facts

In 2002, a women’s advocacy group known as the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus asked Bay State gubernatorial candidates to sign a pledge saying they would “make best efforts” to ensure that the number of women appointed to high-level positions would more fairly represent the proportion of women in the population. Romney and his Democratic opponent both signed that commitment, says Liz Levine, who was chair of the group during that time.

(Levine supports President Obama in the 2012 election, according to the Post’s Plum Line blog. )

Romney’s anecdote seems to refer to his coordination with the women’s caucus and a binder that the group assembled for his administration. The binder contained “hundreds” of resumes, Levine said.

The women’s group released a statement Wednesday confirming that it reached out to Romney first, rather than the other way around. The Romney campaign has not disputed that account, but instead issued a news release with comments from former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who served as a liaison between the Romney administration and the women’s group.

Healey said that 10 of the top 20 positions in the Romney administration were filled by women. She also noted that Romney’s chief of staff while he was governor, Beth Myers, is a woman. “Our administration actively sought to recruit the best and brightest women the Commonwealth had to offer,” Healy said in the statement.

In an interview, Healey said there’s no conflict between Romney’s debate anecdote and the statement from the women’s caucus. “Both of these perspectives are absolutely correct because both of these things happened,” she said. “The part Governor Romney was talking about was once we got into office and were in transition. That’s when he decided to figure out how he could fulfill his promise, and he reached out to the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus.”

Healey added that Romney used other resources as well, including his own personal contacts and those of his transition teams for each agency.

The statement from the women’s caucus noted that 42 percent of Romney’s appointments were women during his first two years in office and that the rate for his final two years was a much lower 25 percent. But these numbers don’t actually tell us much, because they don’t account for whether men or women vacated the positions to create the openings to begin with.

The better data set to examine here is women as a percentage of total senior-level positions. After all, appointing women to fill even one-quarter of the new openings during Romney’s last two years could create a big uptick for females if only men left their positions.

In terms of our preferred metric, a 2007 report from the University of Massachusetts shows that the percentage of women holding top Bay State government positions stood at about 30 percent just prior to the 2002 election. The level dropped to 28 percent by the end of Romney’s term and then rose to 34 percent eight months after Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, took office in 2007.

The downward shift during Romney’s term suggests the GOP candidate might have been less serious about hiring women than he let on. However, Levine said this type of fluctuation is nothing unusual between administrations. She pointed out that new governors tend to set their sights high, but that many of their officials exit near the end of a term, with the vacancies being filled by internal candidates until the governor’s time in office expires.

“If you don’t have a lot of new people in the pipeline, it’s harder to fill those positions with women,” Levine said. In other words, women are at a natural disadvantage in those instances because they already hold fewer positions within the lower ranks.

Jesse Mermell, the former director of the caucus’s female-hiring initiative, known as MassGAP, said during a teleconference with reporters Wednesday that Romney only focused on hiring women when the “spotlight was on.” She also blasted the former governor for relying on outside help to find qualified females for top-level positions. “It’s shocking to me that after 25 years, a professional from the very highest levels of corporate America needed help with this,” she said, adding that Romney should have had his own list ready to go.

We asked Levine whether she feels critical of Romney for accepting help from MassGAP and the women’s caucus. She said: “From my perspective, it’s a sign of strength to be able to reach out to groups and get names and good people who might make your group good.”

The Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus describes itself as a nonpartisan organization. Founder Marge Schiller is a registered Democrat, and many of the group’s leaders donate exclusively to Democratic campaigns. But some key members of the organization, including its former president and numerous board members, are prominent Republicans on the Massachusetts political scene.

Republicans associated with the group include: Ann Murphy, a registered Republican and the organization’s former president; Jennifer Nassour, who was chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party from 2009 until 2011; and Healey.

The Pinocchio Test

Romney suggested during the debate that he took the initiative to find qualified female candidates for his administration by reaching out to women’s groups. But the women’s group that created the “binders” in question said it contacted Romney first, not the other way around. In fact, the organization said Romney signed their hiring-parity pledge while he was still campaigning in 2002.

Overall, Romney seems to have embellished the story here, omitting the role of the women’s caucus in the female-hiring initiative. But he still worked with the women’s caucus and appointed lots of women to top-level positions. Given the passage of time since this incident took place, the gist of his anecdote isn’t totally off-base. The Republican candidate earns two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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