Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How an Ambitious Program Is Empowering Boston’s Women to Stand Up for Equal Pay

November 30, 2016
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How an Ambitious Program Is Empowering Boston’s Women to Stand Up for Equal Pay
Women attend a salary-negotiation workshop in Washington, D.C., in April 2016. Courtesy of AAUW Work Smart
Last year, the city launched a series of salary-negotiation workshops. The results have been promising.

To eliminate the gender gap in paychecks, women must know how to ask for higher salaries comparable to their male colleagues, the proponents of a Boston initiative argue.

AAUW Work Smart, a partnership between the nonprofit American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, offers free salary-negotiation workshops to any woman who lives or works in Boston. At libraries, YWCAs and community centers, volunteer professionals coach participants on coping with their anxiety to effectively ask for a pay bump. Since the program’s 2015 launch, AAUW has hosted 72 workshops from downtown to Dorchester, reaching 1,700 women in the process. And that’s only a small slice of the goal: Over the next four years, AAUW Work Smart intends to reach 85,000, or half of Boston’s working women.

“If I’m working on the same project with the same job and same responsibilities, and I’m getting 64 percent less money than [my male colleague] does, that psychologically brings you down. It doesn’t empower you as an employee. It doesn’t motivate you to do the best of your ability,” says Kristina Desir, AAUW Work Smart’s program manager. Through the two-hour interactive workshops, “we’re trying to get women to get pay equity on their own.”

Nationally, women make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Over the course of a year, that adds up to a $10,470 difference, on average, for full-time, year-round workers. In Boston, as in the rest of the country, the racial gap compounds the problem. There, Asian women make only 77 cents for every dollar a white male takes home; black women, 63 cents; and Hispanic women, 52 cents.

Megan Costello, executive director of the Office of Women’s Advancement, doesn’t view those numbers simply as a feminist matter. The wage gap affects the city’s entire economy, she explains. ”If the majority of our city is underpaid and not paid what they’re worth, that not only hurts them as individuals but it hurts their families, their communities, and it hurts the entire city of Boston,” she told WBUR, the local public radio station. “So this is the right thing to do, but it is also important to the economic vitality of the city.”

To improve the stats, Desir’s workshops dispel the typical anxieties: “The fear of employers saying no, the fear of missing out on a job.” First, she focuses on teaching women to know their worth, to quantify the value they bring to a company. The instructors — many of whom come from Morgan Stanley — then demonstrate how to find industry-wide standards for salaries and benefits online. They also walk the women through different negotiation strategies, like asking for a better title even without a pay raise. After that, in pairs, the women practice role-playing as a manager and an employee asking for more pay.

There’s been some encouraging anecdotal results from Work Smart so far — one woman, for example, negotiated a 40 percent raise — and the model is expanding nationally, most recently to Washington, D.C., and San Jose and Long Beach, Calif. But Desir cautions that workshops alone won’t eliminate the gender gap in salaries. She hopes that, by teaching women how to advocate for themselves, the culture at large will start to shift and that one day, the burden won’t fall on women to demand what they rightly deserve.

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