Flautist sues top US orchestra in equal pay row

12 December 2018, 15:03 | Updated: 12 December 2018, 15:06

Elizabeth Rowe is paid $70,000 less than her male counterpart
Elizabeth Rowe is paid $70,000 less than her male counterpart. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

In July, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s principal flautist decided to sue the orchestra for paying her $70,000 less than her male woodwind counterpart. Now, she has spoken about it for the first time.

Elizabeth Rowe, who joined the BSO as principal flautist in 2004 after a successful blind audition, filed the first lawsuit under the Massachusetts Equal Pay Law that took effect on 1 July 2018.

“If I could have a dream job, this was it,” Rowe told The Washington Post.

“Money is the one thing that we can look to to measure people’s value in an organisation. You look at the number of women that graduate from conservatories and then you look at the number of women in the top leadership positions in orchestras, and it’s not 50-50 still. Women need to see equality, and they need to see fairness in order to believe that that’s possible.”

Rowe says she has asked for years to be paid the same as the principal male oboist – the best comparison to her role in the orchestra. However, the lawsuit states that the BSO has continued to pay her significantly less.

Rowe, who also teaches at the New England Conservatory, states that she has spent the past six months researching the BSO gender pay gap, and advising orchestra officials that the Massachusetts Equal Pay Law requires them to pay her the same as the oboist – who earns $314,600 a year. According to the lawsuit, the orchestra took no action.

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons
BSO at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, MA. Picture: Getty

When the 2016 equal pay law took effect in July, after a two-year waiting period, Rowe’s lawyer filed the complaint. Stamped by the court the next day, her lawsuit was the first equal pay claim filed under the new state law.

In a statement to the Boston Herald, Rowe’s lawyer Elizabeth A. Rodgers said: “It is a sad day when somebody with this degree of prominence and expertise and superb reputation has to file a lawsuit to try to make things right.”

She continued: “She pointed them to the law and tried to resolve it internally. She gave them every possible opportunity to do so from January to July. She gave them documentation and evidence with ample evidence of law and regulation. She regrets she had to address it in a lawsuit to get them to fix this problem.”

Rowe’s lawsuit says that under the new state law, she should be paid no less than a male player in a comparable position – in this case, the BSO’s principal oboist, who sits next to her in the ensemble.

The orchestra has argued, 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 in its leadership role” and is “responsible for tuning the orchestra.” The limited number of great oboists, the BSO said, “gives oboists more leverage when negotiating compensation.”

BSO principal oboist John Ferrillo earns $314,600 a year
BSO principal oboist John Ferrillo earns $314,600 a year. Picture: Getty

Rowe has also argued the orchestra has used her as the ‘face of the BSO’ and has singled her out for prominent solos, public relations and donor meetings, as well as using her to attract members of the public to concerts. She states that since the principal oboist was hired and given a substantial contract in 2001, her successes with the orchestra have rivalled his.

Rowe has also claimed the BSO has previously tried to silence her concerns about pay inequality. In December 2017, the BSO asked her to be interviewed by Katie Couric for a National Geographic piece on the orchestra’s longtime practice of holding blind auditions, a process for screening musicians which is thought to combat race and gender discrimination.

Rowe told the orchestra’s public relations staff she’d love to be interviewed, and mentioned her concerns over the gender pay gap at the BSO. The staff, she says, subsequently retracted her invitation.

Since Rowe filed the lawsuit, The Washington Post has launched an investigation into the gender pay gap in major US orchestras.

They found the top male earner in a US orchestra makes $535,789, while the top female earner makes $410,912.

Their analysis also shows that although women make up nearly 40 percent of the country’s top orchestras, when it comes to the principal roles, 79 per cent (240 of 305) are men. The gap appears to be even more significant in the “big five” orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York, where women occupy just 12 of 73 principal positions.