Mind Massachusetts’ Wage 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?

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.”