How Boston Is Trying to Close the Gender Pay Gap

On a cold, sunny morning in April, Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, took the podium in front of an audience of 150 corporate executives who had gathered at a downtown hotel to learn how men can be better allies to women at work. He quickly launched into one of his favorite stories, about a woman who approached him in an elevator to thank him for her recent $20,000 pay raise.

The kicker: He’s not her boss. Instead, the woman got her raise after taking one of the free salary negotiation workshops that Boston has provided for women since 2016.

What happens when an entire city tries to close the gender pay gap? In the last few years, Mr. Walsh has doubled down on a commitment made in 2013 by his predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, to bring pay equity to the city’s workforce. The Boston Women’s Workforce Council teams up with the area’s companies and institutions, including major ones like Morgan Stanley, Zipcar and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to help them figure out ways to advance women, which they share with one another in quarterly best-practice meetings.

The city has also trained over 7,000 women in salary negotiation, with a goal of training an additional 78,000 by 2021. A more immediate deadline: The Massachusetts Equal Pay Act, passed by the legislature in 2016, goes into effect in July.

The law states that “no employer shall discriminate in any way on the basis of gender in the payment of wages, or pay any person in its employ a salary or wage rate less than the rates paid to its employees of a different gender for comparable work.” In addition, it prohibits employers from disciplining workers for discussing their salaries with colleagues or asking job applicants for their salary history.

(Massachusetts is not the first state to pass a pay equity law. In recent years, many states have been working to pass or strengthen their laws, including North Dakota, Illinois and Oregon. But none of those states has gone quite as far as Massachusetts.)

With employers, workers and policy all working toward the same goal, Boston is trying to succeed in an arena where decades of advocacy, research and good intentions have failed.

“If we just had the legislation, and employers weren’t acting and women weren’t asking, then it’s going to close the gap a little bit but not enough,” said Megan Costello, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement. “It has to be all of these things together.”

A report last year by the Boston Women’s Workforce Council, a public-private partnership, examined data from 114 companies that have pledged to close any pay gaps in their firms, covering 16 percent of the workers in the city, or nearly 167,000. It showed that women earned an average of $73,327 to men’s $97,062, or 76 cents to the male dollar, less than the national average of about 80 cents. (As with recently released pay data from Britain, the gap can be partly explained by the higher concentration of men in senior roles.)

If progress in closing the pay gap over the past five decades continues at the same rate, women in the United States will not reach pay parity until 2059, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has calculated.

But people in Boston say change in their city may come earlier. “Four years ago, we had 37 companies, and we were struggling to get to 60,” Ms. Costello said, referring to workshop participants. “Now we’re at 223.”

“Now, instead of whispering about it, we’re actually talking about it,” said Ashley Paré, a career coach and negotiation expert who leads salary negotiation workshops in Boston on a volunteer basis.

‘It Looks Like You’re Not a Team Player’

On a recent April night at a Back Bay co-working space, around the corner from the tony shops of Newbury Street, Ms. Paré and her co-facilitator, Danielle Lucido, walked a group of 16 women through the basics of negotiation. Ms. Paré, who volunteers as part of Work Smart, a nationwide program administered by the American Association of University Women, started by reminding them that companies had good business reasons to treat female employees fairly.

“Companies are aware, especially now with #MeToo, and all these movements for equality,” she told the audience, whose members ranged in age from the early 20s to late 40s. “Companies have to do the right thing, because talent is not going to stay with them.”

A 49-year-old woman who works at a national telecommunications company was there, she said, because she recently discovered that a new male employee who works under her and is 11 years her junior makes $6,000 a year more than she does. She added that she had attended, in part, to share her story with younger women.

“I’m a real world example,” said the woman, who did not want to be identified because, she said, she feared retribution from her employer.

She told the group that she had raised the issue with a manager two months ago, but that it had not yet been resolved. Instead, the manager told her, “Don’t lose hope,” she recounted, to supportive laughs.

Other participants were preparing to switch jobs and would be negotiating offers soon. Several said they worked at nonprofit organizations, where tight budgets were always an excuse not to pay more.

Over the next two hours, they discussed the origins of the pay gap and learned how to identify a target salary through market research on sites like They also embarked on a group job application and negotiation on behalf of “Olivia Taylor,” a fictitious budding public relations executive whose case study is featured in the 32-page Work Smart workbook that every participant received.

The night was peppered with the knowing nods, empathetic laughs and “mm-hmms” that often characterize all-female gatherings, as women shared personal stories and insights.

Ms. Paré wanted to know: What are the main challenges holding women back from asking? A lack of information, one participant offered. Worrying about how you sound, said another. “But why,” Ms. Paré asked, "would asking for more money damage a relationship with a boss?”

“It looks like you’re not a team player,” one woman in the back suggested.

“If you’re a woman, yeah,” another chimed in, to laughs from the room.

For the final exercise, a role-playing session, the women split into employer-employee pairs to practice the techniques they had learned. “Employers” were given a maximum of $84,000 to offer in salary, while potential hires were told that their target was a minimum of $78,000. Most pairs made a deal, with salaries ranging from $80,000 to the maximum, with a signing bonus.

Caroline Roers, 23, works at a public relations agency, recently got a promotion with a pay raise but felt that she hadn’t been able to negotiate successfully for specific benefits she wanted.

“It was interesting to hear the employer’s perspective,” Ms. Roers said. During negotiations, she said, “I’m so caught up in what I want and what my desires are that I don’t think of ‘Well, O.K., this is an employer and they have wants and desires.’”

With that in mind, she said, she was planning to look more closely at when her agency landed new accounts and clients, in order to determine when to make her next ask.

Expanding the Base

Boston was the first city to officially team up with the American Association of University Women, which now also offers Work Smart training in Tempe, Ariz.; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Long Beach, Calif.; and other locations in Massachusetts. The group says it plans to train 10 million women nationally in salary negotiation by 2022, with the addition of an online Work Smart course in English and Spanish, said Kimberly Churches, its chief executive officer, who noted that 39 states had equal pay legislation under consideration this year.

But she acknowledged that Boston’s workshops had so far mostly reached salaried professionals with more education than the city’s female work force as a whole.

“As successful as it was,” Ms. Churches said, “we also needed to make sure we were emphasizing pockets of the city where there were increased numbers of women of color and of hourly wage earners, so we didn’t just create even greater disparity in socioeconomic status.”

For Hispanic women, the wage gap widens to 54 cents for every dollar earned by a white man, and for black women it’s about 63 cents, based on median annual earnings, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

A report on the first year’s results recommended advertising in Spanish, Haitian Creole and other languages to reach minorities, and working through channels such as faith-based organizations or community health centers, to reach women outside industry groups.

Since January, the city has diversified both the participants and facilitators by increasing the number of workshops held outside downtown by 20 percent; holding them at 11 branches of the Boston Public Library, with more in the works; and working with organizations such as We, Ceremony, a visual storytelling platform for minority women, and the Latina Circle, a professional network.

Over half of the 166,705 employees whose employers submitted pay data to the Boston Women’s Workforce Council are “professionals,” compared with 32 percent in Greater Boston as a whole, according to the council’s 2018 report. In part, that’s because many of the companies that have signed on are in the financial, insurance, health care, pharmaceutical, engineering and nonprofit sectors. Companies that sign the pledge, known as the 100% Talent Compact, commit to submitting salary data every two years.

But some have joined the council precisely because they need more women. April’s quarterly event on male allies featured two representatives from the construction industry, which is about 9 percent female, according to the National Association of Women in Construction. David Margolius, a project executive at Shawmut Design and Construction, and Robert Petrucelli, president and chief executive of Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts, spoke alongside Paul Francisco, chief diversity officer at State Street, a financial services firm.

Mr. Petrucelli said he that he had initially insisted to his group’s communications director, Lisa Frisbie, that it didn’t need a women’s committee, especially since two women had chaired the organization’s board in recent years and a number of women were active on and leading its other committees

“I said: ‘Why do you need a women’s committee? Let the women join our committees, get integrated in,’” Mr. Petrucelli said. But, he added, Ms. Frisbie and Stacy Roman, another woman in the industry, who would eventually chair the women’s committee, told them why they felt it was necessary.

“I heard from Lisa and Stacy Roman, ‘No, you don’t know how difficult it is, Bob, because you don’t understand that we’re operating in a vacuum, and we’re all disconnected,’” he said.

The Building Women in Construction Committee is now the organization’s fastest-growing committee.

“If it’s one advice I can give my peers, it’s listen,” Mr. Petrucelli said. “Just listen, listen, listen, because the times they are a-changing.”

Mr. Petrucelli said his eight-person organization had eliminated the distinction between “executive” staff, who were mostly men, and the mostly female “administrative” staff. He realized one female employee’s responsibilities had outgrown her compensation, and gave her a 20 percent raise, bringing her in line with a similarly situated male employee.

Other employers that signed up reported making similar one-time pay increases, although few described them to employees as raises designed to correct historical gender or racial discrimination.

“We sort of expressed it more as a market adjustment,” said Bob Rivers, chief executive of Eastern Bank, which has 1,900 employees, 68 percent of them women.

Eastern Bank now publishes salary ranges for different roles internally so employees can see where they stand. But Mr. Rivers said many of his peers were reluctant to submit their data to the city, and used that as a reason not to sign the pledge.

“You’ll hear all myriad of excuses,” he said. “One is around the data, the security of the data, the confidentiality of the data. Now, there are very large companies that have submitted, so that’s a red herring.”