How Boston is taking on the gender wage gap: free negotiation classes

Experts say culture needs to change too

In an effort to close the gender wage gap, Boston officials offer free, two-hour salary negotiation classes to any woman working in the city, Danielle Paquette reports for the Washington Post's "Wonkblog."

The $1.5 million Work Smart initiative launched in October and aims to close the 83-cent gap by training 85,000 women in the next five years. The move comes two years after then-Mayor Thomas Menino promised Boston would be the first U.S. city to reach wage parity. As part of the plan, the mayor's office also asks employers to submit anonymized salary data, which will later be published in a report.

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It's not that women are worse at negotiating; they just do it less often, according to research. 

But multiple factors complicate the issue, and economists say it's unlikely the training will make a dent. They also point to mothers leaving the workforce, disproportionate rates of women in low-paying jobs, and discrimination.

Research shows that when female employees do negotiate, employers are predisposed to respond negatively. A 2005 study by Carnegie Mellon University economist Linda Babcock found that when watching videos of men and women asking for a raise in the same way, men saw women as too demanding.

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"People will think, 'I'm not sexist' or 'I'm not racist," says Hannah Bowles, a Harvard University public policy professor, "but certain biases can creep into their perceptions."

And pointing this out to people actually reinforces the habit, Bowles says, which makes it important to also note the company in question does not tolerate the discrimination.

Boston officials say they hope to serve as a model for other major cities. "Legislation alone won't fix things," says Megan Costello, director of the program and executive director of Boston's Office of Women's Advancement. "We need to change the culture to move the needle" (Paquette, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 11/13).

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