Sixteen women are gathered at the public library in West Roxbury. The group includes a lawyer, a social worker, a high school counselor and a recent college graduate. They come from different backgrounds, but they all share a common concern: how to make sure they’re earning the pay they feel they deserve.
Julia Geisman facilitates the group discussion. She runs a company called Career Agility that's focused on advancing women in the workplace.
"Let me just ask one thing: How many of you love to negotiate?" Geisman asks the group. One person — an attorney — raises her hand.
"How many of you would rather put a nail in your eye than to negotiate?" Geisman asks. Most of the women raise their hand. "Oh, isn’t that interesting. So obviously this ... is one of those areas that is an opportunity for growth."
For many in the group, the thought of asking for a raise or promotion causes a lot of anxiety. They don't want to seem entitled or greedy.
"[There's] this … unsettled feeling I get when negotiating that either I’m overselling and being perceived as entitled, or overshooting or underselling and feeling like I’m getting taken advantage of and never just walk away feeling like I did it just right," says Tracy Fitzpatrick, a career coach from West Roxbury, who's participating in the workshop.
For Ximena Sanchez-Samper, a psychiatrist from Weston, there's also a little fear.
"I think the problem is it's sort of like the fear that it might bring out my angry side, and I'm Colombian so that doesn’t look so good," she says with a laugh, as the group sighs in agreement.
Geisman then asks Sanchez-Samper if she tells people about her accomplishments.
"I think I’m starting to, but it’s taken me 20 years!" Sanchez-Samper says.
And that's what these women are here to learn: how to advocate for themselves in the workplace and become more comfortable negotiating. It's all part of an initiative by the city of Boston to offer free salary negotiation workshops for women. The idea is to empower women to ask for more money — and help close the gender wage gap, one workshop at a time.
Part of that involves learning the nuts and bolts of negotiating. The women do a self-assessment and learn how to research salaries and develop a pitch. The workshop also includes practicing how to ask for more money. So the women pair off to do a role-play.
Sanchez-Samper turns to her friend Jemima Arthur, a project coordinator from Roslindale. Arthur plays the employee and pushes for a $60,000 salary, while Sanchez-Samper -- the employer — tries to offer her $49,000. They go back and forth for several minutes before agreeing to continue to conversation.
How Much Can Workshops 'Move The Needle'?
Nationally, women make 79 cents for every dollar men make. In Boston, women earn 83 cents for every dollar men make, according to the city. For women of color the pay gap is much wider — Asian women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar white men make while black women earn 63 cents, and Latina women earn 52 cents.
From the city of Boston's perspective, this isn't just about helping individual women, it's about the city's economy.
"If the majority of our city is underpaid and not paid what they’re worth, that not only hurts them as individuals but it hurts their families, their communities and it hurts the entire city of Boston," says Megan Costello, who oversees the workshops as head of the city's Office of Women's Advancement. "It hurts our entire economy. So this is the right thing to do, but it is also important to the economic vitality of the city."
Costello's goal is to train a total of 85,000 Boston women in five years. The effort began last fall in partnership with the American Association of University Women (AAUW). So far, they have reached over 1,200 women, exceeding the year one goal of 1,000.
But can a workshop really help close the gender wage gap?
Some economists like Claudia Goldin, of Harvard University, don’t think so — at least not by much.
"It could move the needle, but it’s not going to move [the] needle much," Goldin says. "I view this as low hanging fruit and I often say, 'Pick the low hanging fruit and eat it, but it's not going to be a full meal.' "
Goldin has written extensively about the gender wage gap. She says since women are disproportionately the caregivers, changing policies around child care, elder care and even extending the school day would have a much greater impact on closing the wage gap.
"There was a time when we said women aren’t educated as well, they don’t major in subjects that are as relevant to the job market as men, they don't go to professional schools. Now they do all that," Goldin says. "So, we’ve fixed a lot of things, but there are aspects of the labor market with regard to men and women that are far more difficult to fix and those often involve what goes on in people’s personal lives and in their homes."
The city is hoping their efforts create a cultural shift. Costello says the negotiation workshops are just a piece of a very large puzzle. Earlier this month, equal pay legislation was signed into law in Massachusetts. The city of Boston is also working with employers to collect wage data and assess company policies and tackle things like equity and unconscious bias in the workplace.
It's clear there's work to be done in closing the gender wage gap. But what's unclear is what impact the salary negotiation workshops will actually have. That's something the city plans to assess through surveys.
For now, back at the workshop in West Roxbury, the session leaves many of the women feeling a bit more confident.
“Money is always one of those difficult things to talk about — sort of like politics," says Sanchez-Samper, the psychiatrist. "So being able to develop a comfort level, being able to talk about money was the biggest thing that I wanted to learn. And I’m just leaving more confident, we’ll see what happens."
Many at the session hope what happens next is at least a shift in their own paychecks.
This segment aired on August 26, 2016.