BOSTON — On a winter day 14 years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced that it had finally found a new principal flutist. The search had not been easy. Two hundred and fifty-one players had applied, 59 were called to Symphony Hall to audition, and when it was over, only one remained.
Elizabeth Rowe, just 29, had landed in one of the country’s ‘‘big five’’ orchestras. And as a principal, she occupied a special seat, the classical musical equivalent of cracking the Yankees’ starting rotation.
‘‘If I could have a dream job, this was it,’’ Rowe says.
To win the slot, Rowe had taken part in the BSO’s blind auditions, playing her flute onstage behind a brown, 33-foot polyester screen. That way, the orchestra’s 12-member selection committee couldn’t see her and it wouldn’t matter whether she were a man or a woman, black or white. But after Rowe had the job, something important changed. That’s when she believes being a woman hurt her in one key way.
In July, Rowe, 44, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the BSO seeking $200,000 in back pay. Her lawsuit came after years of appealing privately to management about the roughly $70,000 less a year she is paid than John Ferrillo, 63, the orchestra’s principal oboist. Rowe contends that she should make an equal salary and that she doesn’t because of her gender.
The BSO, in a statement, defended its pay structure, saying that the flute and oboe are not comparable because, in part, the oboe is more difficult to play and there is a larger pool of flutists. Gender, the statement says, ‘‘is not one of the factors in the compensation process at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.’’
This week, Rowe will enter mediation with the BSO aimed at resolving the conflict before it goes to court.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the lawsuit, Rowe says her case has far-reaching implications. Her lawsuit will be the first against an orchestra to test Massachusetts’ new equal-pay law, its outcome potentially affecting women across the U.S. workforce who are paid less than their male colleagues.
‘‘Money is the one thing that we can look to to measure people’s value in an organization,’’ Rowe says. ‘‘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.’’
Ferrillo doesn’t just sit next to Rowe in the woodwind section. They’re musically joined at the hip, whether dancing across Debussy or the second movement of Beethoven’s Sixth. They’re also friends and admirers.
They both know what it takes to earn a prominent spot in such a competitive field. Both attended music school, paid their own way to travel to auditions while in their 20s and dealt with rejection. It took Ferrillo 10 years and 22 tries to earn his first symphony position, as second oboe in the San Francisco Symphony in 1985.
But by the time the BSO approached Ferrillo to fill its oboe vacancy, he was a prized member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In 2001, to lure him away, the BSO paid him twice what the orchestra’s rank-and-file make. The BSO and Ferrillo have a nondisclosure agreement in place, which prohibits disclosure of his salary. But the figure, now $314,600, became public as part of the BSO’s tax filing. (Nonprofit organizations are required to list the top five compensated employees earning more than $100,000.)
Coming in to the BSO in 2004, Rowe had done her homework. She asked to be paid the same salary Ferrillo had negotiated. The orchestra turned her down. Rowe says management also would not make her ‘‘overscale’’ — the term for what all principals routinely receive over their base pay — a percentage of her base, which would allow her to avoid asking for a raise every year. Instead, the BSO offered her $750 a week over base the first year, $950 the second and $1,100 once she earned tenure.
Rowe accepted the offer but did not forget. Over the next 14 years, she says, she regularly asked to be paid the same as her male colleague.
For someone who considers herself a private person — Rowe doesn’t use social media or even have a website, as many professional musicians do — going public has been trying, she says. Even when she decided to sue, Rowe had hoped that only her bosses would know. Instead, a Boston Herald reporter stumbled upon the case and published an article. Even though the stress prompted her to ask a doctor for sleep medication, Rowe says, she has no regrets about filing her suit. She says the BSO gave her no other choice.
In her suit, Rowe alleges that the orchestra ignored her and retaliated when she continued to demand a raise, even pulling an invitation to be interviewed by Katie Couric for a National Geographic TV special on gender equality.
It is the orchestra’s argument — 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 (first chair violin) in its leadership role’’ and is ‘‘responsible for tuning the orchestra.’’ The limited pool of great oboists, the BSO said, ‘‘gives oboists more leverage when negotiating compensation.’’
Although four other principal BSO players — all men — earn more than Rowe, the orchestra notes that she is paid more than nine other principals, of which only one, harpist Jessica Zhou, is a woman. Rowe has been given occasional raises, and her current salary is $250,149 a year.
Rowe’s case speaks to a larger reality. There is an undeniable gender gap in the classical music world. A Washington Post analysis of tax records and orchestra rosters shows that although women make up nearly 40 percent of the country’s top orchestras, when it comes to the principal, or titled, slots, 240 of 305 — or 79 percent — are men. The gap is even greater in the ‘‘big five’’ — the orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. Women occupy just 12 of 73 principal positions in those orchestras.
There is a direct link between principal positions and pay, the Post examination found. Only 14 of the 78 musicians in those top orchestras earning enough to be listed on tax filings are women.
‘‘The numbers don’t lie,’’ says Sharon Sparrow, the acting principal flute in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. ‘‘Statistically, it does seem there’s a problem. This is probably what (Rowe) is thinking. If she were a man hired for this job, she would have been paid the same amount. But she’s not and she’s a woman, and she’s been paid less.’’
For women in classical music, the gender gap has always been more about a hunch than a scientific certainty. That’s because pay is determined by complicated factors rooted in history, subjectivity and negotiating strategy. There’s also the highly competitive, ultra-secretive orchestra culture. It’s not a place where compensation is openly discussed.
Michele Zukovsky, who retired as principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2015, remembers mentioning her salary only once to her colleagues in the mid-1960s. She was earning about $350 a week. They snickered, making her think she was overpaid.
‘‘So after that happened, I never spoke about it again,’’ she says.
In 2017, Brook Ferguson, 37, the principal flute player with the Colorado Symphony, filed a gender discrimination claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Unlike Rowe, Ferguson’s dispute remained private, and she didn’t file a lawsuit, she says, because it would have been too costly. Ferguson, speaking publicly for the first time, shared emails and other documents with The Post in which orchestra management questioned her résumé and offered her a raise only if she waived her legal rights. In the documents, she also complained about a conflict she had had with another orchestra member and about alleged sexually charged comments by the orchestra’s management.
Jerome H. Kern, chief executive and chairman of the board of trustees, says that Ferguson is ‘‘highly paid’’ and that the organization does not make decisions based on gender.
‘‘Our orchestra has more women than men,’’ Kern says. (In fact, men outnumber women in the Colorado Symphony 48 to 32.) ‘‘Our concertmaster is a woman. I think you’d be hard pressed to find another woman on the orchestra who would complain about discrimination by management.’’
Ferguson says the emotional toll of the dispute led her to seek therapy and eventually take a year’s sabbatical.
‘‘The hardest thing you can ever possibly do is call your management to task in a public way,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s really considered a betrayal of trust and a betrayal of this idea about these contracts that they’re confidential.’’
Orchestra leaders long ago acknowledged one aspect of the gender gap. In 1970, women made up fewer than 5 percent of the players in the big five. The BSO was the first to use a screen, in 1952, and other orchestras followed to create the blind audition process.
The screens made a difference.
The New York Philharmonic, for example, has gone from 90 men and 26 women in 1993 to its current makeup of 48 men and 44 women.
But most orchestras remove the screen for the final round of auditions.
‘‘If it’s for a principal position, we’ll have them play with the whole section,’’ says Gary Ginstling, executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. ‘‘That’s all information which would really help one make a purely artistic decision. But (it does raise) the question of bias that wouldn’t exist if the screen was up.’’
Rowe cites this important factor in her case, and, in August, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians voted to encourage all orchestras to use a screen all the way to the end of auditions. Implicit bias, which has been studied throughout the workforce, is when a manager favors someone without consciously realizing it. Experts say this bias is why women earn 81 cents to a man’s dollar and why, as a recent Cornell University study found, pay declined as more women entered a profession. And other studies show that when managers think they are working within a meritocracy, they are even more likely to favor men.
‘‘The reality is that bias is an equal opportunity and everybody has a likeliness of exhibiting bias,’’ says Caroline Simard, the managing director of VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University. ‘‘It’s a cognitive factor, and it’s more likely to occur in instances where the evaluation criteria is ambiguous and when you’re in information overload. When you’re trying to examine hundreds of musicians.’’
Ariana Ghez Farrell, the principal oboist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2006 to 2017, says bias isn’t always unconscious. She recalls a former teacher offering what he considered friendly advice during an audition in San Francisco: ‘‘Play with virility because they’re going to want to hire a man.’’
Orchestra managers interviewed by The Post stressed that they do not like that there is a pay gap and concede that women are underrepresented in titled positions. But they think the issue is not bias, but the slow turnover in a field with no mandatory retirement age. In Boston, for example, principal cellist Jules Eskin was in his post for 52 years, from 1964 until his death in 2016. His successor, Blaise Déjardin, is just 34. If he remains as long as Eskin, there will be just one audition for a single principal slot in more than 100 years.
‘‘My personal experience is that I have not seen or found gender bias within the overscale structures that I’ve worked,’’ says Jonathan Martin, president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where 13 of 15 principals are men. ‘‘Where I have seen the anomalies happen, it didn’t lean toward male and female.’’
The Post investigation, however, showed that the anomalies that can be identified almost always benefit men. Among the top 25 orchestras, 11 women are principal flutists. But none of them show up on the list of 78 highest-paid players compiled by The Post. There are only five flute players (all principals) on that list. All men.
In the group listed in tax filings, there is an instance when the principal flute player is a man and the principal oboe is a woman in the same orchestra. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra flute player Mark Sparks earned $166,191 in 2016, according to the most recent tax documents; principal oboist Jelena Dirks doesn’t rank high enough to be listed on tax returns.
At the Philadelphia Orchestra, principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner earned $268,317 in 2015, the most recent year available, making him among the highest paid in the country. Khaner says his pay increased dramatically only when, as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1980s, other symphonies started recruiting him.
‘‘Historically, (Rowe’s) only resource would be to say, ‘OK, if you’re not going to pay me, I’m going to go somewhere else,’ ‘‘ he says. ‘‘That’s what most of us have done. It’s complicated, and I’m glad I’m not a woman. I feel for them in this situation.’’
Rowe never saw herself as a workplace agitator.
She grew up in Oregon, the daughter of two college professors who loved music. Rowe began playing the flute at age 7, earned her music degree at the University of Southern California and scored her first titled position, as principal flute of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, in 1998 at age 23. She was the assistant principal flute in the National Symphony Orchestra when she auditioned in Boston.
Rowe brought stability to the BSO when she arrived in 2004. Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the BSO’s first female principal, was principal flute from 1952 to 1990, but the position was vacant for 10 of the next 14 years.
Ferrillo, who had arrived in Boston three years earlier, was excited about Rowe’s appointment. Like any new player, she faced a one-year probationary period. But Ferrillo wasn’t about to wait to see whether Rowe would earn tenure. Before opening night her first season, he threw a party for her.
‘‘One of my colleagues, he said, ‘Boy, you’re optimistic,’ ‘‘ Ferrillo said in a recent interview at Symphony Hall. ‘‘I just had an immediate sense. She’s a remarkably poised and gracious person. Her playing was fantastic. The sense of center and pitch about it. The artistic approach. I just didn’t have any doubt about it.’’
At the request of Rowe’s attorneys, Ferrillo wrote a statement of support for his colleague. In his court filing, he refers to Rowe as his ‘‘equal’’ partner and says she is ‘‘every bit my match in skills, if not more so.’’
But Ferrillo stops short of endorsing Rowe’s specific salary demand, saying he doesn’t think it’s his place to tell BSO management how much it should pay anyone.
‘‘I don’t even know if I am worth a specific amount of dollars,’’ he says.
Even though Ferrillo stresses that he has great respect for BSO management, he doesn’t agree with one of the orchestra’s central arguments: that oboists are worth more than flute players.
‘‘Is the oboe a leading voice? Yes, it is,’’ he says. ‘‘Is it difficult? Yes, it is. Is the flute difficult? Ever looked at a flute part? They’ve got to play a million notes. The technical standards are astounding. Every instrument has its own private hell.’’
Rowe’s prominence has increased over time. She has been a featured soloist at 28 BSO concerts in 14 years, more than any other principal player and seven more times than Ferrillo during that period. She has often been featured on orchestra publicity materials and, in June, was asked to include a personal appeal on a mass mailing aimed at increasing subscriber donations.
Rowe also thought that resolving her pay dispute, doing what seems right, could offer a dose of good publicity in an industry riddled with controversy. There were the sexual misconduct allegations that would eventually sweep out, among others, former Metropolitan Opera and BSO music director James Levine and Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil. (Levine, who denies the charges, is suing the Met; Preucil was dismissed from the orchestra after an independent investigation.)
‘‘There has not been a lot of good press in our industry recently around women and the treatment of women,’’ Rowe says, ‘‘and I genuinely saw this as a really great opportunity for the orchestra to have something positive to stand for.’’
But instead, she says, BSO management responded to her latest proposal, in March, with silence. She found that ‘‘devastating.’’
Only on Aug. 25, nearly two months after Rowe had filed her suit, did the BSO email to let her know it would boost her salary from $236,303 to $250,149 as ‘‘the result of our normal annual salary review process and not as a result of your lawsuit.’’ The raise would narrow the gap with Ferrillo from $70,497 to $64,451.
Rowe’s hope is that the BSO will resolve her case in mediation later this week or that a court will side with her. One key aspect of the state’s equal-pay law is that a worker’s past salary history isn’t relevant and can’t be used to defend an employer from liability. That is meant to offset the historic imbalance in the workplace.
She has no interest in leaving Boston, where her husband, violinist Glen Cherry, also is a member of the orchestra.
‘‘I love the Boston Symphony. It is my artistic home,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s where I want to be.’’
Rowe knows her case is being watched closely. She has received notes of support from other players, at smaller orchestras, who say they’re too scared to speak up publicly. She also heard from Jeanne Baxtresser, 71, a former principal flutist at the New York Philharmonic who hopes Rowe’s case will close a gender gap she considers ‘‘outrageous.’’
‘‘It’s so irrational — that the facts are known and this wasn’t resolved immediately,’’ says Baxtresser, who retired in 1998. ‘‘These people do beautiful jobs, they sit beside each other. They contribute magnificently. How can you possibility sustain this thing that’s patently unfair?’’