Boston to Spend $1.5 Million Encouraging Ladies to 'Lean In' At Work

"America's largest civic experiment to close the gender wage gap" is launching in Boston. It won't work.



Contrary to popular lore about why U.S. women make less money than men, experts generally pinpoint career choices, time out of the workforce, and myriad other non-discriminatory factors as underlying causes. But according to Boston city officials, the whole gender wage gap business could be solved if us ladies would just learn to ask for raises more forcefully. Hence the city has started offering free salary-negotiation classes to any Boston woman who is interested. 

The Washington Post is calling it "America's largest civic experiment to close the gender wage gap." But—in addition to being a very dubious use of city funds—how can Boston's new plan to boost women's wages work when it's based on such obviously flawed premises?

At present, millennial women tend to earn almost as much as male peers. Wage gaps emerge and become exacerbated as men and women enter their 30s and 40s. Do all these 20-something women suddenly get worse at salary negotiation and self-promotion? That seems unlikely. A better explanation lies in women's persistent role as primary caregivers for children. "Recent cohorts of young women have fallen further behind their same-aged male counterparts as they have aged and dealt with the responsibilities of parenthood and family," Pew Research Center says.

Whether this bifurcation is more a product of preferences or pressure, whether it remains a serious obstacle for women's social progress, how much employer bias against women of childbearing age (regardless of whether they plan to have kids) is a factor, and related questions are not trivial. But they are far from the kind of issues that we can simply legislate or educate away. Sure, some individual women might benefit from the two-hour salary negotiation sessions the city is offering. However, the Boston proposal takes for granted that the wage gap is simply a product of women not "leaning in" enough, which is way too simplistic a view.

"Economists doubt [Boston's] unprecedented approach will yield much of a difference, considering the social forces that exacerbate the gap," notes the Post's Danielle Paquette. "Also, a growing body of research suggests employers may be predisposed to respond negatively to women who request more."

Robin Ely, who teaches organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, told the Post that despite the city's good intentions, it should be careful. "The conversation should not be around women's deficiencies, which is inaccurate," Ely said, "or special treatment, which creates backlash."

Boston's new initiative is projected to cost the city up to $1.5 million over the next five years, not including marketing and community outreach efforts.