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The numbers are as shocking as they are indefensible: Fifty-two years after the federal Equal Pay Act became law, women in almost every profession still earn less than their male counterparts with similar experience and skills.

Despite what seems to be some magical thinking that major strides toward pay equality have been made in recent years, the numbers have barely budged. Nationwide, women make 79 percent of what men are paid. In Boston, they fare slightly better overall — median earnings for women are about 84 percent of men’s. In some sectors statewide, however, the gap is more like a canyon — Hispanic women who work as customer service representatives, for instance, earn just 50 cents on the dollar compared with all men, according to a University of Massachusetts Boston report released this summer

The reasons for unequal pay are many, but one key contributor is obvious, if difficult to quantify: gender discrimination. Another factor gets less notice but is also a serious obstacle to parity: a lack
of negotiation skills. A study by the nonprofit
American Association of University Women
to almost no one’s surprise, that men are more assertive than women when it comes to hashing out the particulars of a job during the hiring process. “In part, this difference may reflect women’s awareness that employers are likely to view negotiations by men more favorably than negotiations by women,” the report noted.

Such reluctance can have a long-term effect — even a slight wage advantage at the start of employment is likely to become significant over time, and difficult to overcome. That’s why a new citywide program, focused on changing women’s attitudes toward negotiation, should be applauded for its ambition. The effort, called Work Smart in Boston, is being spearheaded by the city’s Office of Women’s Advancement and the AAUW, which is funding the $1.5 million project. It’s aimed at teaching 90,000 women over five years about the skills they need to secure the best possible salary and benefits, no matter what kind of job they hold or seek.


Monday marked the first in the program’s series of free salary negotiation workshops. Another is scheduled for Thursday at the Boston Centers for Youth & Families Community Center in Roslindale, with many more to follow throughout every city neighborhood. The sessions, said Mayor Martin J. Walsh, “are the next step in giving women the tools they need to compete in today’s economy.”

The gender wage gap is a problem “whether you’re an executive on the 22nd floor of a fancy office building or you’re a minimum-wage worker just trying to pay your bills,” said Megan Costello, executive director of the Office of Women’s Advancement.


Costello acknowledged that the issue is more complex than just knowing how to ask for more money or paid time off — and that some workers have little leverage to do so — but Work Smart in Boston’s practical approach and its large scale may be enough to make a difference.