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Boston Says It Has A Plan To Erase The Gender Wage Gap

It doesn't matter if you're a surgeon, a banker or a fisherman — if you're a woman in the United States, you're probably paid less than a man. That hasn't changed with federal laws or the feminist movement.

But now, Boston thinks it has a solution to completely erase the gender wage gap.

On average, women across the country are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. The discrepancy is not as wide in Boston, where a typical woman makes 85 cents for every dollar a man makes.

Some say that number needs to be adjusted for factors like career choice and motherhood, and then it'll rise to 91 cents. But even then, for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, 9 cents is still 9 cents too much.

"Women work as hard; they're smart. Just because they're a woman they get discriminated against?" he says. "We're going to end that discrimination in Boston."

Menino is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of man. He's on his way out, but he's been mayor for 20 years. So when he says things need to change, people here listen.

Boston's Simmons College touts itself as the school with the top MBA program for women. But even the students who attend this school say they've felt the stings of unequal pay in the past.

"I have actually experienced a situation where my compensation wasn't comparable to a male counterpart," Estelle Archibold says. "It was at least $20,000 worth of a gap, which is a significant quality of life issue."

Archibold was working for a consulting company then. She says she asked for more money and got it — but it wasn't easy.

Women like Archibold are a driving force in Boston's economy, partly because of sheer demographics: The city is home to the highest proportion of young, educated women in the country.

"When we started to think about closing the wage gap, we thought about it from the beginning as a business initiative," says Cathy Minehan, dean of Simmons business school and the woman leading the city's initiative.

Minehan heads a citywide council that has persuaded more than 40 businesses to sign a pledge to close the wage gap. By the end of the year, it expects to have 50 companies onboard. Some are small, but others are regional powerhouses, like Partners HealthCare, the biggest private employer in the city.

Companies that sign the pledge agree to take three concrete steps. The most crucial step, Minehan says, is the first: Companies open their books and assess their own wage data.

"Sometimes, people reject the idea that we have an issue until they actually see their data," she says. "And then they say to themselves, 'Huh?' "

Then, they'll pick three strategies to improve pay equity. There's a list of suggestions recommended by the council, and companies choose what they like. Ideas include increasing wage transparency, actively recruiting women to executive-level positions, and offering subsidized childcare.

And then, finally, businesses agree to share their wage data anonymously every two years so the city can measure progress.

The catch is that none of this is actually required — it's all voluntary. Minehan argues that that's the plan's strength. "We wanted this to be something that businesses felt strongly was in their best interest."

But will this approach be enough to disrupt the old boys' club?

Katie Donovan, who started a company called Equal Pay Negotiations, says there are systemic hiring practices that discriminate against women.

"We have to get rid of salary history — it's on every application. All it does is set us up for failure," she says, "because if you're a woman, you're going to have a lower salary history than, excuse me, but the white men. They get the premium."

A lot of women also say they need to learn to advocate for themselves — that the onus to fix this problem can't rest solely with the employer.

But whether or not the idea gains traction, just the fact that Boston has made pay equity a priority is enough of a selling point for grad student Meghan Williams.

"I want to live in a city that values me as much as it values its men."

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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