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 counterpart. Unexpectedly, a local reporter picked up on the story, ultimately leading to an extensive feature in the Washington Post, where her story served as the centerpiece of a larger article exposing significant gender pay 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.
The pay discrepancy between Elizabeth and her equivalent male performers was a matter of public record, thanks to financial statements required of non-profit organizations. For years she repeatedly asked for her compensation to be brought in line. In 2018 the State of Massachusetts passed new equal pay legislation making it illegal to use someone’s prior salary from a different employer to set pay within the new role. She drew the orchestra’s attention to this new law, but the orchestra’s management continued to stand by the pay disparity, stating that “gender was not a basis for compensation”.
Elizabeth drew upon non-work friends and her family for support, did her own research about executive salary negotiation, and then found a small specialist law firm. Her subsequent repeated and unsuccessful private attempts to address her pay disparity eventually led her to file a 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 more than a decade. Her equivalent male colleague stated in the Washington Post that she was his “equal” and “every bit [his] match in skills, if not more so.” In 2019, shortly after the article was published, Elizabeth and the BSO settled the lawsuit. 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 maintains supportive and respectful relationships with her colleagues. She also credits a “small army of extraordinary women” who supported her throughout.
Elizabeth’s options were limited. She had little choice but to try to remain in post, since there are very few symphony orchestras of Boston’s standing and no equivalent posts open for principal flutists. Since she had tenure within the orchestra, it would prove difficult for the BSO to release her.
Throughout her doubts, Elizabeth remained “grounded in [her] own personal integrity”. She understood that she had to align her behavior with her core beliefs and identity. Elizabeth also admits she was naïve when she began the process, but now better 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. She then spent several months refusing interviews, before eventually choosing a trusted reporter at the Washington Post to speak to.
Her experiences during this challenging time encouraged her to extend her portfolio to include public speaking and life coaching. None of those career extensions would have occurred had she not faced this adversity.
One of the key lessons Elizabeth learned was the value of sharing information with colleagues about salaries, despite it being a taboo topic. This is often the only way to reveal such discrepancies. As a result of her legal action, there is now a growing culture of talking openly about remuneration within her industry.
#1 Start by gently broaching the subject and offering to share your salary first.
#2 Acknowledge that it is not a zero-sum game – it should not impact your salary to reveal it to another.
#3 Don’t assume that salary discrepancies reveal anything about the inherent value of an employee.
#4 Elizabeth talks about tapping into an interior strength, describing this as “putting on [my] superhero outfit” prior to going into a difficult meaning.
#5 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.
#6 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.
#7 Lastly, Elizabeth talks about the importance of quietude and focus within her work. She likes to remain connected to the moment and avoid mental distractions. 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