One City’s Quest to Erase the Gender Pay Gap

Boston is trying to ensure its female workers earn as much as men by asking local companies to rethink perks such as workplace flexibility and child care.

Workers in a meeting.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Feb. 18, 2014, 8:02 a.m.

Wo­men make an av­er­age of 77 cents for every dol­lar a man makes on the job. And, while some Wash­ing­ton law­makers want to ad­dress that gap via le­gis­la­tion, the city of Bo­ston is try­ing a dif­fer­ent meth­od: a vol­un­tary city com­pact, with spe­cif­ic prac­tices that par­ti­cip­at­ing com­pan­ies can im­ple­ment.

The ini­ti­at­ive, called the “100% Tal­ent: The Bo­ston Wo­men’s Com­pact,” launched in late 2013, the brainchild of now-former Bo­ston May­or Thomas Men­ino. With 50 busi­nesses on board, the pro­gram has a way to go be­fore meas­ur­able pro­gress can be seen. But it has at­trac­ted some of the biggest em­ploy­ers in the city, such as the Bo­ston Med­ic­al Cen­ter and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mas­sachu­setts.

Busi­nesses that sign the pledge agree to open their books and self-as­sess their wage data to see how, stat­ist­ic­ally, they do on pay par­ity, that pesky gap between what men and wo­men earn na­tion­ally. Then, the com­pan­ies choose three strategies to put in place. A re­port from the city of­fers 33 sug­ges­ted “in­ter­ven­tions,” in­clud­ing fol­low­ing gender-blind ap­plic­a­tion pro­cesses, stand­ard­iz­ing com­pens­a­tion, and of­fer­ing or sub­sid­iz­ing child care. Every two years, busi­nesses will an­onym­ously share their wage data with a third party, who will com­pile it for the city to meas­ure over­all pro­gress.

Bo­ston’s gender gap is smal­ler than the na­tion­al av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the city’s Wo­men’s Work­force Coun­cil, with wo­men earn­ing 83 cents for every dol­lar men make. Even after elim­in­at­ing factors such as edu­ca­tion­al, oc­cu­pa­tion­al, and work ex­per­i­ence dif­fer­ences, wo­men still earn less than men, ac­cord­ing to the coun­cil.

“The re­mainder you can’t sort of wash away stat­ist­ic­ally. The re­mainder has to do with subtle things in the work­force, un­con­scious bi­as, things that busi­nesses in the end get as frus­trated about as wo­men do, be­cause they don’t un­der­stand how to deal with them,” says Sim­mons Busi­ness School Dean Cathy Mine­han, who is lead­ing Bo­ston’s ini­ti­at­ive. “That re­main­ing as­pect of the gender gap is what this ef­fort is all about.”

Small and large com­pan­ies have chosen to sign on, in­clud­ing Part­ners Health­Care, the largest private em­ploy­er in Mas­sachu­setts. CEO Gary Got­tlieb says wo­men make up more than three-fourths of the com­pany’s work­force. The com­pact doesn’t just mir­ror the com­pany’s val­ues, he says, but “it’s in our own busi­ness in­terest.”

“The bet­ter that Bo­ston can close that pay gap, the more that Bo­ston be­comes a very at­tract­ive place for gradu­ates of the high­er-edu­ca­tion com­munity, four-year col­leges and pro­fes­sion­al schools,” Got­tlieb says. “That’s a labor pool that’s ac­cess­ible to us.”

Got­tlieb says his com­pany already has a num­ber of the re­com­men­ded prac­tices in place, such as child care and po­s­i­tions that of­fer loc­a­tion and sched­ule flex­ib­il­ity, so it hasn’t had to al­ter much. Wo­men ac­tu­ally fare quite well at Part­ners already; the av­er­age fe­male em­ploy­ee makes 13.5 per­cent more than the av­er­age man, Got­tlieb says, largely due to a high­er con­cen­tra­tion of wo­men in high-pay­ing jobs. At lower-levels, such as food ser­vice, men earn an av­er­age of 2.5 per­cent more than fe­male coun­ter­parts; Got­tlieb says men at those ranges tend to hold the more seni­or po­s­i­tions.

Tack­ling un­con­scious bi­as and mak­ing wages more trans­par­ent will only go so far, however, ar­gues Har­vard eco­nom­ist Claudia Gold­in, who has writ­ten ex­tens­ively on gender and the labor mar­ket. In a re­cent study, she found dif­fer­ences in salar­ies between men and wo­men could be dra­mat­ic­ally re­duced if busi­nesses prized out­put over work­ing long and spe­cif­ic hours, the so-called face-time at the of­fice. The gap between male and fe­male pay is lar­ger in fields with ri­gid work­days and de­mand­ing cli­ent-em­ploy­ee re­la­tion­ships, such as law and fin­ance, than those with more flex­ib­il­ity, such as tech.

But it’s not busi­nesses’ re­spons­ib­il­ity to com­bat this prob­lem; some of the gap is has to do with mar­ket de­mands. “There are cer­tain cases in which the costs of hand­ing off cli­ents and part­ners is very ex­pens­ive, but these costs change over time,” Gold­in says. Phar­macy work is one ex­ample of a field in which work­ers now can eas­ily sub­sti­tute for one an­oth­er, thanks to ad­vances in tech­no­logy and changes in con­sumer ex­pect­a­tions.

Mine­han points to some of the prac­tices sug­ges­ted by the city’s com­pact that en­cour­age great­er work flex­ib­il­ity. But only a few months in, the Bo­ston’s task force is just be­gin­ning to fig­ure out how to meas­ure suc­cess. The groupy plans to hold yearly con­fer­ences where or­gan­iz­a­tions can share their best prac­tices.

“We really were fo­cused on not mak­ing this a new law, new reg­u­la­tion, new re­port­ing re­quire­ment, but rather something that busi­nesses felt they wanted to do,” Mine­han says. “There’s so much em­phas­is on what gov­ern­ment can do and I’m sure there’s lots of things that gov­ern­ment ought to be do­ing, but I think a lot of these is­sues need to be solved by people on the ground, the work­ers on the ground and the busi­nesses, rather than a whole new [piece of] le­gis­la­tion.”

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