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?

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.”