How Boston Is Trying To Eliminate The Gender Wage Gap

Download Audio

It doesn't matter if you're a surgeon, a banker or a fisherman. If you're a woman in the United States, you're probably paid less than a man doing the same job. This gender wage gap hasn't changed with federal laws or the feminist movement.

But now Boston thinks it has a solution.

The Gender Difference In Boston

The U.S. Census Bureau says, on average, a woman is paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. In Boston, that discrepancy is not as extreme.

A new report (PDF) from the city's Women's Workforce Council finds that a woman here makes 85 cents for every dollar a man makes. Some say that number needs to be adjusted for factors like career choice and motherhood — and then it rises to 91 cents.

But even then, for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, 9 cents is still 9 cents too little.

"Women workers are hard, they're smart," he said. "Just because they're a woman they get discriminated against? We're going to end that discrimination in Boston."

It's Menino who launched this initiative to make Boston the most attractive city for working women. Mayor-elect Marty Walsh promises to continue the work.

Boston's income ratio and female representation by occupation (City of Boston report)
Boston's income ratio and female representation by occupation (City of Boston report)

A Compact, And 3 Custom Strategies

Simmons College touts itself as the school with the top MBA program for women.

But even the type of women who attend Simmons are not immune from the stings of unequal pay in the past.

"I have actually experienced a situation where my compensation wasn't comparable to a male counterpart," said Estelle Archibold. "It was at least $20,000 worth of a gap, which is a significant quality of life issue."

Archibold was working for a consulting company. She says she asked for more money, and got it, but it wasn't easy.

Women like Archibold are a driving force in the local economy, which is why city leaders say Boston is uniquely capable of fixing the gender wage gap. It's a matter of sheer demographics: Boston is home to more young educated women per capita than any other major city in the country.

"If you're a business in the Boston area you are increasingly dependent upon educated women in your workforce because those are the people who are in our workforce," said Cathy Minehan, the dean of the Simmons School of Management and a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. She's also the woman chosen by Menino to lead the city's pay equity efforts.

"When we started to think about closing the wage gap we thought about it from the beginning as a business initiative," she said.

Minehan says companies need to utilize 100 percent of the talent available. She suggests that pay equity is easier to sell as a business strategy than a moral imperative.

Minehan is leading the citywide council that has so far persuaded 44 businesses to sign a pledge to close the wage gap. Some are small, but others are powerhouses in the Boston business community: Raytheon, Boston Children's Hospital, Partners HealthCare.

Companies that sign the compact agree to take three concrete steps.

Minehan says the most crucial step is for companies to statistically assess their own wage data. "Sometimes, people reject the idea that we have an issue until they actually see their data," she said. "And then they say to themselves, 'Huh?' "

Then they'll pick three strategies to improve pay equity.

There's a whole laundry list of suggestions recommended by the council. Companies choose what they like. The ideas include things like increasing wage transparency, actively recruiting women to executive-level positions, and offering subsidized child care.

"You can't say that one size fits all, or one solution fits all," Minehan said. "You know what's going to work in terms of a Suffolk Construction is probably not the same thing that works for State Street bank." Both of those companies have signed the pledge.

Finally, businesses agree to share their wage data anonymously every two years so that the city can measure progress.

The catch is that the entire scheme is voluntary.

Will The Initiative Work?

Katie Donovan, who runs a company that helps women negotiate equal pay, spoke with WBUR at a recent breakfast seminar about putting more women on corporate boards.

Donovan says there are systemic hiring practices that discriminate against women.

"We have to get rid of salary history; it's on every application," she said. "All it does is set us up for failure because if you're a woman, you're going to have a lower salary history than, excuse me, but the white men, they get the premium."

A lot of women also say they need to learn to advocate for themselves; the onus to fix this problem can't be solely on the employer.

Meredith Leffler works in event planning. While eating lunch in a park near Boston's Financial District, she described the few times she's ever negotiated for pay at work as the "most stressful, nerve-racking thing ever." She says culture is partly to blame.

"Just the way that we're raised, we're told to, you know, keep quiet more often," she said, "whereas men are told to be more aggressive and go for what they want, and it's kind of looked down upon for women."

Whether or not the idea of eliminating the wage gap gains traction, it's already got the ears of many young educated women — the demographic the city wants companies to tap into.

And, for one of those young women, MBA student Megan Williams, just the fact that Boston is making pay equity a priority is enough of a selling point.

"As a young person, as a young woman, it makes me want to stay here and work here," she said, "because I want to live in a city that values me as much as it values its men."

The city is hoping a lot of Boston businesses feel the same way.

By the end of the year, it expects to have 50 companies on board.

This program aired on November 26, 2013.

Headshot of Asma Khalid

Asma Khalid Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.



More from WBUR

Listen Live