Boston Has Eliminated Sexism in the Workplace. Right?
Not even close. Local women open up about the hurdles, barriers, and empty gestures in America’s most progressive state. By Sarah Green Carmichael
Years ago, Kathy-Anne McManus moved her family from Australia to Boston to take an executive job with a technology firm. After high-profile positions at software and digital service firms in Singapore and Sydney, she was happy to be here. Her professional life in Australia had left her feeling as if she’d been stuck in the dark ages, “like I was about 15 years back in terms of gender discrimination,” she says. Boston seemed like a breath of fresh air.
Things started out well: McManus was put in charge of a struggling 350-person unit in the 3,000-person company and quickly led it to profitability. Gradually, though, she realized the company was paying her male peers more than her—much more. Perhaps $100,000 a year more. McManus went to her boss and told him that she wanted to renegotiate her salary so that it would be more in line with what the other half-dozen executives on the team—all men—were earning. He demurred, initially pointing out that the firm had paid for her family to relocate to Boston. McManus persisted, explaining that ongoing compensation was a separate and unrelated issue to that of relocation costs. Her boss dug in, pivoting to a different excuse: that she hadn’t proven herself yet. “Let’s see how you perform,” she recalls him saying, as if she hadn’t just turned around a flailing division. And then came the coup de grâce: “You know, you’re very aggressive.”
It’s hard to imagine McManus ever facing a moment of self-doubt—she exudes warmth and enthusiasm as she talks about mentoring younger women—but the executive refers to this incident as causing one of her “battle scars.” “It started quite a spiral for me,” McManus says. “You know, Why do I have to prove myself more than my peers? ”
The craziest part of her story, of course, is that it’s not that crazy. These are the sorts of anecdotes Boston women often trade at book-club meetings and networking events, and I heard them again and again while reporting this article. Moreover, if you’re familiar with the notion of gender bias at work, McManus’s account ticks one box after another: that the higher you climb on the corporate ladder, the bigger the pay gap gets; that women are compelled to prove their abilities over and over again in a way that men are not; that women who negotiate or stand up for themselves are labeled “aggressive” or “pushy” or worse; and that being so labeled can have significant negative consequences and cause even the most confident and competent women to doubt themselves.
Sexism in the workplace is hardly new, but the issue has increasingly appeared in the mainstream as greater numbers of women, and sometimes men, have stepped forward to call out toxic cultures or serial-offender bosses. This past year alone, allegations of gender discrimination at Uber were one of the factors that forced founder and CEO Travis Kalanick to step down, and endemic allegations of sexual harassment led to the ousters of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly from Fox News.
On the national level, the numbers speak for themselves. Women suffer from a wage gap, earning an average of 80 cents on the dollar compared with men. And even though more women than men have attended college since the late 1970s, women continue to make up the minority of chief executives—28 percent at U.S. firms, 4 percent in the Fortune 500. They fill just 7 percent of leadership roles in the top 100 VC firms.
In the Boston area, sexism wears its own unique and often subtle disguise. The Hub, after all, is widely recognized as one of America’s most progressive cities—not a place that tolerates overt, Archie Bunker–style chauvinism. Home to fearless female leaders such as Elizabeth Warren and Maura Healey, it has led the nation on lefty causes including gay rights and healthcare reform. It’s easy, therefore, to think of Boston as a leading-edge place where hard work and good ideas will always win the day. But that’s precisely sexism’s insidious camouflage. “There’s this feeling that our values are just a little better,” says Sara Laschever, a Concord-based researcher who has written two bestselling books about compensation negotiation and the wage gap. “And so there’s less incentive to actually try to bring about change.”
Workforces have long suffered from a lack of gender diversity, but lately the costs are rising. Massachusetts isn’t the worst state when it comes to gender equality, but it trails some of the places that we compete against for talent and investment capital. New York City; San Francisco; Washington, DC; and Durham, North Carolina, part of that state’s Research Triangle, all come to mind. Boston has a wider wage gap than all of those places, and despite our innovation culture, we have a lower percentage of female entrepreneurs. Left unchecked, sexism will fuel Boston’s brain drain, costing the city many of its best and brightest and weighing down our lofty economic aspirations.
Boston doesn’t have the glitz and glam of New York or the pomp and circumstance of DC. Instead, it must live or die on its reputation as a great place to live and work—a progressive hub of equality and innovation—to attract and retain talented, top-tier candidates. As state coffers dwindle and politicians complain there’s not enough money to improve the T, perhaps the most convincing argument comes from a McKinsey & Company study, which showed Massachusetts would receive a jaw-dropping 12 percent bump in GDP if it achieved gender parity in the workplace. “There’s clear data that shows that gender-balanced firms produce significantly better outcomes and that female founders do more with less and produce better returns on average,” says Nancy Cremins, a lawyer and the cofounder of SheStarts, a female-focused tech accelerator. “You’d think that the business case could easily be made, yet there is still resistance to the concept.”
That’s largely because sexism in Boston remains one of the city’s biggest open secrets—cloaked under a blanket of unconscious bias, empty gestures, and well-intentioned liberal blindness. But will we ever be able to transform how people think?
When Laura (not her real name) arrived for her first day at her new company as a twentysomething, she was excited to work hard and learn the business. But as she looked around at her cohort during orientation, she immediately noticed a troubling pattern: Women dominated the customer support roles, while men tended to occupy the higher-paying, more technical roles. She thought back to her job interview, during which the male hiring manager had asked about her technical qualifications before suggesting she might feel more comfortable in a support role where she could “learn the ropes.” At the time, it seemed like the smart move—the company was clearly excited about hiring her, and the manager seemed to have her best interests at heart. Now, though, as she looked around at the company’s other new hires, she couldn’t help but notice that the men in the technical roles had no more experience or skill than the women in the support roles. So why had all the women seemingly been nudged into the lower-paying, less prestigious jobs?
As far as intentions were concerned, Laura gave the hiring manager the benefit of the doubt: He seemed to believe that he was simply slotting the best candidates into roles that most naturally suited their abilities. Unfortunately, though, that subjective approach to hiring leaves a lot of room for unconscious bias—and typifies how Boston’s faith in its own progressivism may be exacerbating the struggles of the city’s women.
The idea of unconscious bias has gained a lot of traction in recent years and is key to understanding sexism in Boston. The condensed version is that most people make assumptions about the roles that men and women are supposed to play—men are stronger leaders or more original thinkers; women are better organized or equipped with “soft skills” such as high emotional intelligence—and we default to them, unwittingly, throughout the day. We all have biases; they’re like subconscious shorthand. But in the workplace, problems can arise when they color the way a person’s work or ability is perceived. As a result, women often find themselves surrounded by progressive-minded colleagues in an ostensibly forward-thinking office, yet feel diminished in subtle ways that are hard to prove. “Unconscious bias,” says Abbie Celniker, a partner at the Boston-based venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures, “really is the root cause underlying the issue.” More pointedly, these biases can keep organizations more male and more white, says Rebecca Pontikes, a lawyer who specializes in discrimination cases. “We gravitate toward people who look like us.”