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

Rebecca Pontikes lawyer

Lawyer Rebecca Pontikes has represented everyone from cops to teachers to executives. / Portrait by Webb Chappell

When it comes to attracting the best talent, there’s long been a fear—supported by a growing body of evidence—that Boston is losing its best and brightest to other cities. A 2016 study by the real estate services firm CBRE, for instance, examined the top-10 technology markets across the country. Its conclusions were sobering: Boston sustained the single largest brain drain of workers—losing more than 17,000 over five years. Even worse: Workers were leaving Boston for cities such as San Francisco and DC—the equivalent of losing a Red Sox player to the Yankees. There are, of course, many reasons why someone leaves Boston. Housing, for one, certainly doesn’t come cheap, and folks looking to start a family face the second-highest average cost of infant care in the nation—$17,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But it’s safe to assume that some of the people who move away are looking for more-equitable job opportunities.

Some employers argue that it’s hard to find the right woman for a job. This is often called “the pipeline problem”: the idea that there just aren’t enough women with the training that companies need, so they’ll keep hiring men until one of those great women comes along. It’s a somewhat sensible-sounding argument that also happens to be mostly wrong.

The sciences are among the loudest bemoaners of the all-male pipeline, which in a town like Boston—with the best-educated female population of any city in the country—is more than a little ironic. In fields such as biology, women now make up the majority of college students, yet are still not getting into the highest-paying jobs. At MIT alone, according to professor emeritus Nancy Hopkins, women compose about 70 percent of undergraduate biology majors and 50 percent of Ph.D. students, but despite this pool of talent, investors are still disproportionately backing male-led startups and the area’s biotech firms are still male-dominated. Still, two-thirds of Massachusetts employers say they have trouble hiring employees with the right skills, according to a 2015 survey. Over the past five years, according to the CBRE study, Boston schools awarded more technology degrees—in excess of 17,000—than any other top tech market. Boston companies should have an easy time finding talented employees. The key is convincing workers, many of them women, not to move away.

One reason Boston may be losing homegrown talent is because its companies are behind the curve when it comes to pay. According to official census numbers, for instance, Massachusetts’ women make an average of 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man. While that’s 3 cents above the national average, it’s still a wider pay gap than in New York, DC, or California. And new estimates have actually shown that it may be worse than that. According to a public-private partnership called the Boston Women’s Workforce Council, which polled 69 employers, women here are actually being paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man—meaning the gap could be 6 cents larger than the official estimates based on census data, which rely on self-reported incomes.

And the pay gap is just the start. Boston is not nearly as friendly to women-owned businesses as you might expect. Despite the city’s booming economy, Boston was ranked 46th in the American Express Open 2016 study of the top-50 metropolitan areas for women-owned businesses, not only behind Washington, DC; New York; and San Francisco; but also Pittsburgh; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jacksonville, Florida. Since the annual report began in 2007, the number of woman-owned firms in Boston has grown by just 20 percent, placing the city in 49th place.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley may get hammered as a Wild West of broseph-filled tech companies, but California is one of only three pioneers—Rhode Island and New Jersey are the others—to guarantee paid maternity leave. New York is set to join this select group in 2018. California has a leg up on Massachusetts on another issue, too: noncompete clauses. These employer-employee contracts make it more difficult for people to switch jobs if they get a better offer for more money. They’re banned in California but legal in most other states, including Massachusetts. While noncompetes hurt both men and women, women may suffer more: Researchers from Harvard, Wellesley, Boston College, and Oslo’s Institute for Social Research found that women who stay within the same company see a larger gender wage gap than those who switch companies. (Men’s salaries rise both when they stay and when they switch.) Thus, although non-competes make it tougher for both men and women to earn more by accepting remunerative outside offers, those offers may have a disproportionate effect on women’s earning power.

People move away for all kinds of reasons, but if we want to be the world-class city we often think of ourselves as—a magnet for the top women the world over—we can’t afford to have this even be a question. “It’s a tight labor market,” says MaryRose Mazzola, the executive director of the Boston Women’s Workforce Council. “Equity is a competitive edge.”


Somewhat depressingly, studies show us bias training and other good-faith efforts to address sexism in the office often don’t work. It’s awfully tough to legislate the way people think, and some of the most promising research tells us that society should just stop trying to change people’s minds. “Biases are very stubborn,” Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of the book What Works, has said. “They are very hard to overcome simply by trying to change mindsets.”

Luckily, there’s still hope. Instead of throwing our collective arms in the air, Bohnet argues, there’s a clear path toward eliminating an unhealthy chunk of sexism in the workplace. Instead of trying to rid workers of stubborn biases, we’d all be better off changing the processes and systems that companies rely on and cutting out any room for sexism—intentional or otherwise.

If changing people’s unconscious attitudes through training doesn’t work, though, what does? There are a few simple moves any company can make to help prevent workers from acting on their biases. When it comes to hiring, for instance, an area in which bias can have enormous impact, several studies have shown that simple, structural changes can have a major impact. Including more women in a pool of finalists can produce dramatic results; a 2016 study found that when there was only one female candidate in a pool of four finalists, her odds of being hired were a staggering zero percent, but shot to 50-50 if two women were considered. Gender-blind evaluations can also improve women’s chances. The most famous example of this was during the 1970s, when orchestras asked musicians to hide behind a curtain during auditions. Immediately afterward, 50 percent more women advanced to later rounds. Over the following decades, women grew from 5 percent of orchestra members to around 40 percent.

Another emerging idea is to scrap job interviews altogether and instead ask potential workers to complete a relevant task. For HR managers who insist on having interviews—hey, you want to make sure someone is a fit, right?—they should do away with unstructured interviews, during which collegiality or a common background—Oh, wow, I lived in that same house when I was at Harvard!—can so easily become deciding factors. And make salary negotiations an explicit part of the hiring process; in one experiment, just including the words “salary negotiable” in a job description cut the gender pay gap for new hires nearly in half.

Structural changes can also make company cultures less susceptible to human error. Laschever, for example, mentioned a dean who, as a first order of business, recalculated salaries in her department to close the wage gap. A few years later, the dean discovered that the gap had opened back up. How? When responsibilities changed or increased, male professors were more likely to ask for additional compensation than their female counterparts. In other words, fixing the wage gap in her department meant creating a new system that accounts for all the ways we’re socialized and biased, and preventing them from short-circuiting all of her best intentions.

People often look to the state legislature for a fix, but so far it’s been a mixed bag. The good news is that Massachusetts recently became the first state to prohibit employers from asking about a prospective employee’s current salary before offering a job. The goal is to close the wage gap by making sure that the traditionally lower wages given to women don’t travel with them from job to job. The less exciting news is that a bill banning noncompetes has been languishing in the legislature since last summer, and other laws that could help Massachusetts women are still lingering on lawmakers’ desks—including one for paid family leave and another containing protections for pregnant workers.

In Laschever’s eyes, data and facts also go a long way toward solving Boston’s brand of sexism. “Data speaks with a kind of objective authority,” she says. It punctures notions that women with kids are less productive, it demystifies hiring, it changes the picture of sexism from a notion that something just isn’t right to a picture of all the ways that an office might be poorly managed.

Luckily, Boston is already making inroads. The Boston Women’s Workforce Council, which has written a compact for companies that want to close their wage gaps, has been growing rapidly since it was founded in 2013, and counts some of the city’s biggest names—Putnam Investments, Partners HealthCare, State Street—among its coalition members. More than 200 companies have signed on. The wider pay gap and overall state of sexism in Boston that the group has found might not be the good news that we all were hoping for, but it’s a good way to start a hard conversation that we need to have in order to fix things. Change, of course, is never easy. But if Boston can make real strides toward equality, maybe we’ll finally prove that we’re as smart as we like to think we are.