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What is “Comparable Work” in the Symphony World?

The concept of pay discrimination based on gender is often grounded in the principle of “equal pay for equal work.” It is a simple idea and easy to understand in the case of a man and a woman working side-by-side on an assembly line doing exactly the same job.  But what if the man and the woman are sitting side-by-side in a symphony orchestra and one plays the oboe and the other plays the flute?

This is the question that could be decided by a Massachusetts court in conjunction with a discrimination suit brought by Elizabeth Rowe, principal flutist of the Boston Symphony, who is paid $70,000 less than the principal oboist, John Ferrillo. The case was brought under a new Massachusetts law that requires “equal pay for comparable work” (Note the use of the word “comparable” as opposed to “equal” or “identical.” )

The Boston Symphony vigorously denies discrimination arguing that the flute and oboe are not comparable instruments, that each instrument has its own pay scale, and that Rowe is paid more than nine other principal musicians in the orchestra who are men.

To complicate matters, the oboist, John Ferrillo, has submitted a statement as testimony in support of Rowe which is sympathetic to many of her arguments and effusive in his praise of her playing but does end with the words “I believe that the Equal Pay Law is an extraordinarily blunt instrument for accomplishing its stated aims.” (Anyone interested can form their own opinion by considering the law itself here.)

Chatter among insiders on the internet has been divided.  Some feel that the Boston Symphony has treated Rowe unfairly and the prudent course would be to settle, avoiding the danger of a precedent-setting court case. Others claim that whatever her talents, Rowe’s position as a principal flutist is unique in the Orchestra, that there is no pattern of discrimination based on what other principals earn, and that it is worth the Boston Symphony taking the chance of losing in court.

One thing is certain: if the case does go to court and Rowe prevails, the impact on the symphony world will be profound. While it is true that the law on which this case is based is limited to Massachusetts, there would likely be a strong effort on the part of many musicians to argue that the precedent should apply to them.


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