In July 2018 Elizabeth Rowe, the principal flutist and Walter Piston chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra (“BSO”), filed a gender discrimination lawsuit alleging that the BSO violated the newly enacted Massachusetts Equal Pay Act. Rowe argues that the BSO was paying her less to perform substantially similar work – when viewed in terms of skill, effort, and responsibility – than it was paying her male counterparts, simply because she was a woman and they were men. Gender is a protected class, under the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act and most other civil rights statutes, and discriminating on the basis of one’s membership in a protected class is against the law.
Rowe framed her argument by pointing to one of her BSO colleagues, the orchestra’s principal oboist John Ferrillo. As another principal in the orchestra, Ferrillo holds a similar position to Rowe, and yet his salary is nearly $65,000 greater than hers. Comparing these two positions is naturally an imperfect exercise, as an oboe and a flute are obviously different instruments. A rough approximation can be made by looking at one piece of objective data: since joining the BSO in 2004, Rowe has performed as a soloist 27 times, while Ferrillo has performed as a soloist just 14 times. Notably, Ferrillo supports Rowe’s efforts to obtain equal pay. At the request of Rowe’s employment attorney, Ferrillo provided a statement of his opinion that Rowe was “every bit [his] match in skill, if not more so.”
Rowe’s case provides a look at the problem of gender discrimination on the individual level, but it is a systemic issue in orchestras, and can be difficult to isolate due to the many factors that impact salary decisions. The BSO has raised some of these factors in defending the discrepancy in Rowe’s pay: the talent pool for certain instruments is deeper and thus they are in lower demand; individual players can be uniquely talented leading to a bidding war over their services; random factors akin to ‘right time, right place’ can come into play. When looking at some nation-wide statistics, however, these explanations become dubious. As the Washington Post reported, an analysis of 78 top-earners from 21 orchestras in the United States shows that: (1) 82% of those top-earners are men; (2) the men in the pool make on average just over $52,000 more than the women; and (3) the top male earner makes $535,789 while the top female earner makes only $410,912.