Renowned Flutist Sues Boston Symphony Orchestra for Equal Pay

Elizabeth Rowe. (Marco Borgreve/Boston Symphony Orchestra)

July 4, 2018; Boston Herald

Elizabeth Rowe, a nationally prominent musician who holds the position of principal flute player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), is suing the nonprofit orchestra “for paying her $70,000 less than her male woodwind counterpart, raising what looks like the first lawsuit filed under the Massachusetts Equal Pay Law” that took effect July 1st, reports Brian Dowling in the Boston Herald.

As per Dowling, Rowe joined the symphony in 2004 “after winning a blind audition for the role of principal flute.” Jeremy Eichler in the Boston Globe reports that principal oboist John Ferrillo had base compensation of $280,000 for the fiscal-year ending August 31, 2016, and that according to Rowe’s attorney, “Rowe was paid $70,000 less than Ferrillo as of 2017.” In orchestra performances, Dowling notes, Ferrillo literally “sits in the chair next to hers.”

The lawsuit seeks “more than $200,000 in unpaid wages and other damages.” Anastasia Tsioulcas of NPR reports that, according to Rowe’s lawsuit, “she has been profiled as a soloist with the orchestra 27 times in the years since she was hired—more than any other BSO principal musician.” And her work has been widely acclaimed; for instance, a 2010 New York Times review of one orchestra performance noted that Rowe “provided a positively rapturous conclusion.”

It’s believed that Rowe’s suit is the first equal pay claim filed under the new state law. Before filing, Rowe spent six months “documenting for orchestra officials the pay disparity and putting them on notice that the Massachusetts Equal Pay Law requires them to pay her the same as the oboist.” Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler discusses the suit’s potential for broader ramifications; as “the first pay equity lawsuit brought by a leading orchestral musician,” it could be a sign “the debate over gender equality in the historically male-dominated classical music world may be moving into new territory.

The orchestra industry has made great strides toward gender equity in terms of employment, as Schuessler points out: “Half a century after the introduction of blind auditions, in which candidates are heard from behind a screen, women make up just over 47 percent of players in American ensembles.” But while blind auditions have helped women achieve equity in employment, salaries are another matter. Union contracts provide a common minimum base salary—but, notes Schuessler, “principal players and others generally negotiate significant ‘overscales’ based on solo fees, costs of instrument ownership, promotional duties and other variables.” The result, according to Drew McManus, who has advised musicians on contract negotiations, is that “many orchestras fail to be rigorous in quantifying a musician’s value, allowing room for bias.” McManus adds that a “a mix of tradition and apathy conspires with a lack of formal compensation policies to produce a system that practically begs for problematic outcomes.”

Salaries aren’t the only gender inequity in the orchestra world. As Tsioulcas points out, also at issue is “the number of female soloists, conductors and composers who are being showcased.” BSO, Tsioulcas notes, has only six female composers this season out of 45, yet, even so, this makes it tied with “the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the greatest number of female composers featured by a major American orchestra in the upcoming season.” Tsioulcas adds that when Rowe was hired in 2004, the BSO had only one other female principal musician.

Dowling also mentions an additional factor in the lawsuit: Rowe’s claims of BSO retaliation.

In December 2017, the BSO asked her to be interviewed by Katie Couric for a National Geographic segment on the orchestra’s longtime practice of using blind auditions—a procedure of screening auditioning musicians from their evaluators to combat race and gender bias. Rowe told the orchestra’s public relations staff she’d love to be interviewed and mentioned her concerns of salary discrimination at the BSO. The invitation was rescinded.

According to Dowling, BSO spokeswoman Taryn Lott provided a statement saying that the orchestra has no comment on the lawsuit “at this time.”—Steve Dubb