Elizabeth Rowe is the Principal Flutist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 2018 she made the difficult decision to sue her own orchestra for paying her significantly less (up to $70,000 less) than her male counterparts. Unexpectedly, a reporter picked up on the story and Elizabeth ended up speaking to the Washington Post, who used her as the centerpiece of a larger article about gender inequalities amongst orchestral musicians.
Here she talks to Joya about becoming a groundbreaking champion of pay equality as well as becoming a life coach and an advocate for other women facing similar dilemmas.
Having played the flute since she was seven years old, Elizabeth joined the orchestra in 2004 at the age of 29. She was both “thrilled and a little intimidated” to be joining an elite leadership group within the orchestra. As the only woman amongst the principal players, she was also one of the youngest performers in the orchestra.
In 2018, Elizabeth discovered the pay discrepancy between herself and her equivalent male performers. The State of Massachusetts had passed legislation making it illegal to use someone’s prior salary from a different employer to set pay within the new role. When Elizabeth put this to her employer, having consulted a legal team, the Orchestra’s management rejected her claim and added that “gender was not a basis for compensation”.
She drew upon non-work friends and her mother for support, and did her own research about executive salary negotiation, then found a small specialist law firm. Elizabeth’s initial tentative enquiries steamrolled into a full-blown lawsuit.
Then a reporter unearthed the case and published a news article on 4th July 2018, blindsiding both Elizabeth and her lawyers. Elizabeth was “terrified” and “not looking to become a symbol or a statement” but was eventually “so grateful to be thrust into the spotlight.”
Enlisting some of her male colleagues as allies was a key move, leveraging relationships built up over a decade. Elizabeth won the court case with a generous settlement from BSO. She remains the first and only classical musician to have taken her employer to task in this way.
Elizabeth reveals that she’s proud of her achievement, especially having set precedent, and staked her reputation in the struggle for equal pay. She performs with the orchestra to this day and although there are colleagues she does not get on with, most are supportive and respectful. She also credits a “small army of extraordinary women” who supported her throughout.
Elizabeth’s choices were limited at first. She had little choice but to try to remain in post, since there are very few symphony orchestras of Boston’s standing and very few posts open for principal flutists. Since she had tenure within the orchestra, it would prove difficult for the BSO to release her. Elizabeth reveals that, outside of the legal battle, she has not been treated badly by her employer.
Throughout her doubts, Elizabeth remained “grounded in [her] own personal integrity”. She realized that she had to align her behavior with her core beliefs and identity. Elizabeth says she was naïve when she began the process, but now understands the limitations of the judicial process and how challenging it can be to set precedent.
One of her lowest moments was once she learned the lawsuit would be made public. Elizabeth says she went “non-verbal” for a day due to the shock. Eventually she chose a trusted reporter at the Washington Post to speak to. She also decided to talk directly to her close colleagues to pre-empt the publicity’s impact.
Her second nadir took followed a particularly vicious move made by the defendant’s team; Elizabeth had a “fight or flight response”. It made her contemplate the possibility of moving on and extending her portfolio to include public speaking and life coaching. None of those career extensions would have occurred until had she not faced adversity.
She drew strength when she performed a lead part during one BSO performance and received huge applause from the audience. “That was a very powerful moment for me”, she reveals.
One of the key lessons Elizabeth learned was the value of sharing information with colleagues about salaries, despite it being a taboo topic. This can be the only way to reveal such discrepancies. As a result of her legal action, within the BSO, Elizabeth reveals, there is a new culture of talking about remuneration.
Elizabeth has the following tips for initiating a conversation about compensation:
- Start by gently broaching the subject and offering to share your salary first.
- Acknowledge that it is not a zero-sum game – it should not impact your salary to reveal it to another.
- Don’t assume that salary discrepancies reveal anything about the inherent value of an employee.
Elizabeth talks about tapping into an interior strength, describing this as “putting on [my] superhero outfit” prior to going into a difficult meaning.
She says that in any difficult negotiation there’s always “a place where everyone can win”. Listening to both sides of the argument and trying to see things from your opponent’s point of view can bring the two sides a little closer towards a compromise. Elizabeth believes that honesty, respect, and clarity are essential aspects of staking your claim.
Regarding gender equality, Elizabeth acknowledges that there are stubborn issues around hiring and opportunities within orchestras. Although auditions are held anonymously, by the time musicians reach the level of entering a symphony orchestra, inequalities are already baked in. Much work remains to be done.
Lastly, Elizabeth talks about the importance of quietude and focus within her work. She likes to remain connected to the moment and avoid mental distraction. This “flow” state requires practice, but it is a skill that can be acquired through repetition.
Elizabeth can be contacted via https://www.iamelizabethrowe.com