Boston Has Eliminated Sexism in the Workplace. Right?

sexism in the workplace boston magazine

Photo illustration by Peter Crowther, model photograph by Ken Richardson, styling by Abby Bielagus, hair and makeup by Laura Dillon, model, Meredith McGrane/Maggie Inc.

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.


How much the state GDP would grow by 2025 if we closed the wage gap.

The cost of one year of infant care in Massachusetts.

77 cents
A new estimate of our wage gap, according to the Boston Women’s Workforce Council (six cents worse than previous estimates).

Boston’s rank in American Express Open’s 2016 list of the top 50 cities for female entrepreneurs.

The number of tech workers who left Boston for new jobs between 2011 and 2016.

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.”

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.

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.

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