BOSTON On a winter day 14 years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced that it had finally found a new principal flutist. The search had not been easy. Two hundred and fifty-one players had applied, 59 were called to Symphony Hall to audition, and when it was over, only one remained.
Elizabeth Rowe, just 29, had landed in one of the country’s “big five” orchestras. And as a principal, she occupied a special seat, the classical musical equivalent of cracking the Yankees’ starting rotation.
“If I could have a dream job, this was it,” Rowe says.
To win the slot, Rowe had taken part in the BSO’s blind auditions, playing her flute onstage behind a brown, 33-foot polyester screen. That way, the orchestra’s 12-member selection committee couldn’t see her and it wouldn’t matter whether she were a man or a woman, black or white. But after Rowe had the job, something important changed. That’s when she believes being a woman hurt her in one key way.
In July, Rowe, 44, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the BSO seeking $200,000 in back pay. Her lawsuit came after years of appealing privately to management about the roughly $70,000 less a year she is paid than John Ferrillo, 63, the orchestra’s principal oboist. Rowe contends that she should make an equal salary and that she doesn’t because of her gender.
The BSO, in a statement, defended its pay structure, saying that the flute and oboe are not comparable because, in part, the oboe is more difficult to play and there is a larger pool of flutists. Gender, the statement says, “is not one of the factors in the compensation process at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”
This week, Rowe will enter mediation with the BSO aimed at resolving the conflict before it goes to court.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the lawsuit, Rowe says her case has far-reaching implications. Her lawsuit will be the first against an orchestra to test Massachusetts’ new equal-pay law, its outcome potentially affecting women across the U.S. workforce who are paid less than their male colleagues.
“Money is the one thing that we can look to to measure people’s value in an organization,” Rowe says.
Ferrillo doesn’t just sit next to Rowe in the woodwind section. They’re musically joined at the hip, whether dancing across Debussy or the second movement of Beethoven’s Sixth. They’re also friends and admirers.
They both know what it takes to earn a prominent spot in such a competitive field. Both attended music school, paid their own way to travel to auditions while in their 20s and dealt with rejection. It took Ferrillo 10 years and 22 tries to earn his first symphony position, as second oboe in the San Francisco Symphony in 1985.
But by the time the BSO approached Ferrillo to fill its oboe vacancy, he was a prized member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In 2001, to lure him away, the BSO paid him twice what the orchestra’s rank-and-file make. The BSO and Ferrillo have a nondisclosure agreement in place, which prohibits disclosure of his salary. But the figure, now $314,600, became public as part of the BSO’s tax filing. (Nonprofit organizations are required to list the top five compensated employees earning more than $100,000.)
Coming in to the BSO in 2004, Rowe had done her homework. She asked to be paid the same salary Ferrillo had negotiated. The orchestra turned her down. Rowe says management also would not make her “overscale” — the term for what all principals routinely receive over their base pay — a percentage of her base, which would allow her to avoid asking for a raise every year. Instead, the BSO offered her $750 a week over base the first year, $950 the second and $1,100 once she earned tenure.
Rowe accepted the offer but did not forget. Over the next 14 years, she says, she regularly asked to be paid the same as her male colleague.
For someone who considers herself a private person — Rowe doesn’t use social media or even have a website, as many professional musicians do — going public has been trying, she says. Even when she decided to sue, Rowe had hoped that only her bosses would know. Instead, a Boston Herald reporter stumbled upon the case and published an article. Even though the stress prompted her to ask a doctor for sleep medication, Rowe says, she has no regrets about filing her suit. She says the BSO gave her no other choice.
In her suit, Rowe alleges that the orchestra ignored her and retaliated when she continued to demand a raise, even pulling an invitation to be interviewed by Katie Couric for a National Geographic TV special on gender equality.
It is the orchestra’s argument — in a response filed with the court — that “the flute and the oboe are not comparable.” In the statement to The Washington Post, the BSO also said the oboe is “second only to the concertmaster (first chair violin) in its leadership role” and is “responsible for tuning the orchestra.” The limited pool of great oboists, the BSO said, “gives oboists more leverage when negotiating compensation.”
Rowe has been given occasional raises, and her current salary is $250,149 a year.
BSO management responded to her latest proposal, in March, with silence. She found that “devastating.”
Only on Aug. 25, nearly two months after Rowe had filed her suit, did the BSO email to let her know it would boost her salary from $236,303 to $250,149 as “the result of our normal annual salary review process and not as a result of your lawsuit.”
Rowe’s hope is that the BSO will resolve her case in mediation later this week or that a court will side with her.
One key aspect of the state’s equal-pay law is that a worker’s past salary history isn’t relevant and can’t be used to defend an employer from liability. That is meant to offset the historic imbalance in the workplace.