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

Nancy Cremins SheStarts

Female execs do more with less, says Nancy Cremins, cofounder of SheStarts. / Portrait by Webb Chappell

Examples of unconscious bias abound. In 2012, for instance, researchers at Yale decided to test for bias in the sciences. To do this, they created an application for a promising—but not outstanding—student seeking a lab manager job, and asked faculty from six universities to review it. Half of the reviewers were given the application with a woman’s name, the other half the identical application with a man’s. The result: Faculty rated the hypothetical male candidate higher in every category—competence, hireability, and whether they’d mentor the applicant—and suggested lower starting salaries for the hypothetical female candidate.

Research tells us that things don’t necessarily get better from there. Once they’re hired, women are chronically under-credited, especially when they’re working on a team. In a 2016 study of academia, Harvard researcher Heather Sarsons found that female economists who coauthored papers had a 40 percent chance of receiving tenure, compared to a 75 percent chance for men with similar CVs. But the gap disappeared when women authored solo. She surmised that potential employers assumed that the women who shared bylines were doing less work. In such situations, our unconscious biases get the better of our rational minds, meaning that what feels true differs alarmingly from what is true. At Harvard’s Kennedy School, senior lecturer Hannah Riley Bowles found that women who negotiate during hiring are perceived negatively at higher rates than men—and the result held true even when they were trying to get a raise from a female superior. In a series of recent studies, Bowles heard subjects report that they were less inclined to work with women who negotiated during interviews, either as bosses or subordinates.

All of which jibes with stories of how women and men are held to different behavioral standards, with women being punished for deviating from expected feminine norms. Cremins, an attorney, remembers being criticized in ways she said would never have happened to a male colleague. “I had a review where a partner said I had too much of ‘an edge,’” she says, exasperated. “I spent the first 10 years of my career primarily as a litigator! My job was to advocate for my clients.” 


Veronica (not her real name) had only half an hour until her next meeting as she hurried down the hallway to the pumping room. A senior manager at a Cambridge tech company with a newborn at home, her day was often packed with back-to-back commitments, and she had only a narrow window to get this done. When she opened the door, though, she came face to face with her male boss, who was sitting inside the room taking a phone call. He held up an index finger in the universal sign for “Just a minute.” Veronica glanced back at the pods of desks where her coworkers sat behind her: Like many tech companies, her employer had an open office, and the pumping room was the only private spot in the entire space. What was she supposed to do? She made a “Hurry up!” gesture, and her boss again made a “Hold on” motion. After an agonizing wait, he finally relented.

Her boss may not have noticed the irony, but Veronica did: The young company had been progressive enough, with enough women in its upper echelons, to remember to designate a room where nursing mothers could pump. Yet the men who formed the senior team were still clueless enough to use that room for their private phone calls, expecting moms to just “hold on” while they finished up. “Have you heard of breastfeeding?” Veronica fumed. “This is the thing that practically 50 percent of our population does at some point in their lives.”

Still, she thought of the men who ran the company as feminists—or at least, as people who think of themselves as feminists. In addition to the pumping room, they’d taken the extra step of documenting and internally sharing the average male salary and average female salary at the company, which pretty closely matched Boston’s gender pay gap. But in the end, their good-faith efforts—the things they felt proud about getting right—blinded them to what they were still doing wrong. While they recognized that a pay gap existed, Veronica recalls, they saw it as something that just happened, rather that something they had helped create and could fix. Collecting the data was a gesture—a performance of progressivism—but without anything being done to fix the problem, it was an empty one.

Increasingly throughout Boston, women’s task forces, women’s resource groups, and gender training sessions are sprouting up in offices. They are the central, and sometimes sole, way that many of the city’s progressive-minded companies address the issue of sexism. UMass Boston associate professor Banu Özkazanç-Pan found when comparing the entrepreneurial scenes in Boston to St. Louis that businesses here far prefer to deal with diversity problems by sponsoring outside networking events for women and minorities—creating parallel tracks rather than trying to change the way institutions work. Women often enjoy these events, and companies feel good about sponsoring them. The problem, says Özkazanç-Pan, is that this approach doesn’t result in more women in leadership roles, or a narrower wage gap. “What it creates are women’s resources, women’s networking groups, and women’s conversations where men are either not invited, don’t feel welcome, or simply don’t think it’s their business or is something they can contribute to,” she says. While there can be value in finding a mentor who gets what you’re going through, “integration takes men’s work as well, so men have to be at the table.”

To be certain, resource groups can help women “feel like you’re not the only one there and to share experiences and maybe laugh about that,” Laschever says. But she agrees that employee groups targeting women and minorities probably won’t solve the diversity problem. “Anything that compounds your minority status,” she says, ultimately only “makes it harder.”

Still, this parallel-track approach remains popular—perhaps because it doesn’t really require anyone to do the hard work of leveling a playing field that is tilted to favor men. “It’s not that women need special treatment,” says Julie Coffman, a partner at Bain & Company and the chair of Bain’s Global Women’s Leadership Council. “They’re just facing a terrain that’s more challenging and requires more perseverance.” Laschever puts a finer point on it: “There is this illusion in a lot of professional fields that they’re meritocracies, and they’re not.”

The subtle social cues, for instance, that sort men into technical roles and women into customer service roles also contribute to job-level sorting. A survey conducted by Bain, led by Coffman, found that this can happen breathtakingly fast once men and women join the workforce: Among employees with less than two years of work experience, women were actually more ambitious than men, were more likely to aspire to a “top management” role in a large company, and were more convinced they’d get there. But after two years, women’s interest in reaching the top, and their confidence that they’d eventually get there, plummeted. The mechanism, the researchers concluded, was not a self-esteem issue but an organizational one: a lack of belonging driven by an accumulation of subtle cues about whose work is valued more.

But changing how companies work—from how they attract and develop talent to how they manage and communicate—has to come from the top. And that won’t happen until leadership sees a price for staying stuck in the status quo, Celniker says: “People don’t take on hard, disruptive things unless they know that they need to.”


Kathleen (not her real name) had just returned to her job at a tech startup near Boston after six weeks of maternity leave. It had been stressful, short, and only partly paid, so she asked her boss why the company’s policy was so paltry. Kathleen has degrees from two Ivies and MIT and had started her first company, which she later sold, while she was still an undergrad. At that moment, however, she wasn’t feeling particularly valued.

Standing before her boss, Kathleen will never forget his answer. Women, she recalls him saying, tend to leave the workforce after they have babies. So by having a terrible maternity-leave policy, the company was able to dissuade women from joining in the first place. That way, she says he explained, “the company is not out of luck when they leave.”

The comment left Kathleen sputtering. The idea that she was working for someone who thought women with kids weren’t ambitious or hard-working, and seemed to believe that women in general were housewives in waiting, cut her to the core. “I was just so shocked and horrified that somebody would think that way, not to mention that they would say that out loud,” she told me. She still gets angry thinking about the exchange. “I wish I had said, ‘That’s probably going to lead to you having an inferior workforce, and it serves you right.’” Instead, all she could muster was, “Don’t you want to be attracting and retaining top female talent?”

Her boss’s comment wasn’t just offensive, it was way off the mark: The idea that women drop out of the workforce after having kids is largely a myth. At any given time, only about 10 percent of highly educated women are out of the workforce to take care of children, and almost 90 percent of them plan to go back to work. Most say inflexible bosses and uncompromising spouses pushed them out of the workforce. In fact, a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study by three (male) economists showed women with children were more productive at work than women without children. In other words, the policy at Kathleen’s company was chasing away what could have been many of the best workers.