Mind the Gap

Why does Massachusetts—perhaps the most progressive state of them all—have one of the country's biggest wage disparities between men and women?

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

wage gap men women massachusetts

Photo by David Arky

On a Thursday morning in the waning weeks of 2012, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center was swarming. Nearly 8,000 people were mapping out the discussions and workshops they wanted to attend at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, the largest all-female networking event in the state. The halls were buzzing about Deepak Chopra and Arianna Huffington, both of whom were presenting keynotes—offering lessons, you might say, in the divine secrets of the Rah-Rah Sisterhood.

After picking up their neon tote bags, hordes of women, from coeds to corporate mavens, wandered the convention floor, collecting brochures on graduate programs. Emboldened by the day’s theme, “Imagine: Find Your Purpose—Make a Difference,” they packed ballrooms to hear lectures on the “disruptive innovation of you” and “defining success on your own terms.” It was so crowded that the event’s organizers converted the men’s restrooms to ladies’ rooms for the day. “So many women here,” one participant tweeted. “Binders and binders and binders full.” One speaker led the room in a raucous cheer: “Mass. Women Rock!”

Three days later, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) released a bombshell of a report. Massachusetts, it announced, ranks 37th in the nation when it comes to wage equity. Women here currently take home only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. That’s right: Liberal and educated Massachusetts, home to the first law requiring gender wage equity (1945!) and some of the most esteemed women’s colleges, has a major gender pay problem.


It’s easy to believe that women are doing just as well as men around here. After all, we’re surrounded by smart, talented, ambitious women working in law firms, hospitals, government, and academic institutions. Harvard’s president (Drew Gilpin Faust) is a woman, as is MIT’s former president (Susan Hockfield). We just elected Elizabeth Warren to the U.S. Senate, and Therese Murray is the president of the state Senate. This is Massachusetts, where women can do anything!

So yes, we’re used to seeing powerful women, but we don’t often get the chance to see how their paychecks compare with those of men. This blindness is a major part of the problem, says Susan Duffy, who heads the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College. We suffer from the “it doesn’t happen here” syndrome. “But when you actually look at the hard numbers,” Duffy says, “it’s tough to dispute that we have a real problem.”

Massachusetts women are successful. The Harvard economist Claudia Goldin points out that women here are paid, on average, $10,000 more than women nationally. “Women are earning more than anywhere in the U.S. except for Connecticut,” she says. “The real story here is that Massachusetts people are pretty rich.”

In other words, because Massachusetts women tend to make a good living, they’re likely to think that they’re being fairly compensated. Well, they are not. The fact is that all those smart, talented women aren’t earning as much as the men they work with.

The problem starts at the top, in the boardrooms, which lack the type of female presence that could promote fair pay and advancement for women. The Boston Club just released a survey showing that only 12.7 percent of local-business board members are women. That’s significantly worse than the still-not-good 15.6 percent at Fortune 1000 companies. Worse still, 35 of the commonwealth’s 100 largest public companies have no women in the boardroom, including the oil company Global Partners and the tech giant Teradyne, and that’s despite the fact that studies have shown that companies with female representation on their board have higher profits and perform better for their shareholders.

Such studies led two local businesswomen, Malli Gero and Stephanie Sonnabend, to create 2020 Women on Boards, an advocacy group that hopes to increase the percentage of women on U.S. corporate boards to 20 percent by 2020. Gero says Boston suffers from a lack of Fortune 100 companies, which are more likely to aggressively pursue boardroom parity and pay equality in the office. “Boston business is very slow to adopt newer ways of thinking,” Gero says. “It’s not a corporate priority. We’re seeing it in the board diversity and we’re seeing it in terms of the wage gap.”

Ironically, it’s in part because women are so successful here that these disparities persist. “The higher level a woman is in her profession, and the more education a woman has, the broader the wage gap,” says Victoria Budson, who heads the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School and chairs the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. Because there aren’t many rules about compensation at those high levels, managers operate with great flexibility, Budson says. That’s where bias creeps in.

And the biases against women are real. Another study released last year by the AAUW found that a woman one year out of college makes $7,622 less than her male counterpart. In short, women begin well behind the starting line, a fact that “can snowball over a lifetime into a huge pay gap,” says Babson’s Susan Duffy.

What’s more, when women actually do ask for raises, they are often still awarded less than men, and can face “social backlash” just for asking. Hannah Riley Bowles, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Linda Babcock, of Carnegie Mellon University, have found that men who ask for higher pay are seen as aggressive and competent, while women are seen as “lacking in niceness and overly demanding.” They argue that for women, the “social costs of negotiating”—that is, appearing too aggressive—“could easily outweigh the benefits of securing a higher compensation offer.”

And what about the old explanation for the wage gap: that women drop out of the workforce to have children? It’s a myth, according to Budson, who says that on average, women work 34 years, while men work 37. “This is not a work-family balance issue,” she says. “Their number one reason for leaving is they don’t see that they are being valued by the organization, or they don’t see growth opportunities.”


To close the gap, Massachusetts needs to make some major fixes. It’s already the law here, after all, that men and women are supposed to be paid fairly. And some advocates have stepped up to take on the challenge. Researchers at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School just published findings this January that suggested that managers who evaluate candidates jointly rather than individually regarding their future performance can do a better job promoting without bias. And as part of their outreach efforts, 2020 Women on Boards sends out an email blast each month encouraging followers to reach out to—and shame—companies lacking female board members. The tactic appears to be working: After campaigns against Facebook and BlackRock, both companies added female board members this past summer. We need to do the same locally.

Beyond that, we need to educate young women—and men—on how to navigate and change the gender dynamics of the workplace. Under Duffy’s guidance, Babson has launched an innovative pilot program that features regular speakers and conversations on gender. The goal is to instill awareness of the issues in students before they enter the workplace. Meanwhile, the Women Are Getting Even (WAGE) project, run by the former Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy, teaches young women in 40 states how to determine their market value and use the kind of persuasive language that helps avoid social backlash, like, for example, stating how much they love their work, and then pointing out that they just want to earn what they deserve.

What’s needed, though, is effective policy on both the federal and state level. Last June, the U.S. Senate voted down the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have allowed for more workplace salary transparency. “In the middle of a presidential election with a tremendous focus on the women’s vote,” says Budson, “the leaders of our nation felt wholly comfortable voting against furthering the interests of women.”

Similarly, state Representative Alice Wolf, of Cambridge, has been petitioning the State House for more than a decade to better define “comparable work,” a sticking point in filing and winning gender bias claims in the commonwealth. She’s received little support, and with her recent retirement, we need a member of the younger generation to continue the fight.

Now that we’re aware of the gap, we have to close it. “We’ve raised an entire generation of women telling them that you can be anything you want to be, that the world is your oyster,” Budson says. “But what we didn’t share, is that you can be anything that you want to be, but the structures and systems and culture have not caught up.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2013/01/gender-wage-gap-men-women-massachusetts/