Symphony Orchestras Have a Pay Discrimination Problem

The solution is radical salary disclosure.

Musicians play stringed instruments as a man directs.
Andris Nelsons leads a rehearsal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston’s Symphony Hall on Sept. 26, 2014. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Elizabeth Rowe made headlines earlier this year when she sued her employer, the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As the orchestra’s principal flutist, Rowe argued that she should make the same salary as her good friend John Ferrillo—the legendary principal oboist who sits beside her. That she is paid nearly $70,000 less per year, Rowe argues, is the result of gender discrimination.

Although its mission is to bring to life the exalted works of Beethoven and Brahms, a classical symphony orchestra is still a workplace much like any other. Musicians face the same fundamental questions about the value of their labor as cooks, construction workers, professors, and engineers. Like other workplaces, the symphony orchestra faces fraught questions of gender discrimination. Like other workplaces, the symphony orchestra is badly in need of reform.

Substantive reform cannot happen without radical transparency regarding hiring, promotion, and pay. Efforts such as screened auditions—which ostensibly provided anonymity for musicians—likely helped but fell short of solving the problem. While transparency is stressful and uncomfortable at the outset, it is also the key to unlocking equity not only for women but all demographics.

Gender discrimination has a long history in the classical music world. For centuries orchestras were presumptively male dominated: The Vienna Philharmonic was intentionally all-male until 1997, and even today only 12 percent of its members are women. The gender disparity is not as pronounced in most orchestras, but discrepancies linger. While 40 percent of American symphony musicians are women, only 27 percent of principal players are women, and the number falls to 16 percent within the so-called “big five” orchestras. Of the 78 musicians in the “big five” orchestras who make enough money to be listed in public tax filings, only 14 are women.

These statistics paint a troubling picture, but the lack of transparency in symphony orchestras means that we don’t know the magnitude of the problem. We don’t know how hiring practices are designed or implemented. We don’t know how orchestras resolve disagreements over subjective evaluations of elite artists. We don’t know how orchestras determine whether and how to recruit top talent, as opposed to holding an open audition that anyone can attend. If an orchestra holds an open audition, we don’t even know that they will hire anyone: The BSO left Rowe’s seat vacant for 10 out of 14 years prior to her hiring.

Even if a player is fortunate enough to win a position in an orchestra, once again she faces an intimidating lack of transparency. Beyond what is available on public tax filings, the pay structure in elite orchestras is shrouded in secrecy. We don’t know whether there even is a pay structure or whether salaries are simply determined on an ad hoc basis. We don’t know what factors are used to justify differences in pay, even objectively unique responsibilities like the principal oboist’s formidable task of providing the tuning A. We don’t know whether there is consistency from orchestra to orchestra. Without this information and much more, assessing the scope of discrimination is impossible.

Unfortunately, the legal process is unlikely to yield the information needed for a comprehensive evaluation of gender discrimination. Elizabeth Rowe might have a winning lawsuit, but she probably won’t end up litigating before a jury. Less than 5 percent of lawsuits alleging employment discrimination reach a jury, and most settle much earlier in the litigation process. Litigation is stressful, lawyers are expensive, and it is usually less costly—psychologically and financially—for the parties to reach a settlement well before trial. If the case does settle, it will not go into discovery and will not uncover other relevant pay disparity information, like other BSO musicians’ salaries.

Moreover, Rowe and the BSO recently entered mediation, meaning that musicians and the public are even less likely to find out missing information that is relevant to her claim. When a dispute is resolved in mediation, one or both sides often insist on a nondisclosure agreement—a contract that prevents either party from discussing the terms of their settlement. Such a settlement may be the best short-term result, but it also means that other musicians within and beyond the BSO will never learn critical information about how much their colleagues are paid, engendering a culture of distrust and intimidation in lieu of equity.

While the legal process is unlikely to help, the BSO can choose a different path. Elite orchestras desperately need a model for fairness. The BSO has been given the opportunity to provide that model by injecting transparency into both the process and substance of the symphony orchestra workplace. Procedural transparency would include, for example, clear and consistent methods for hiring musicians and offering tenure. Substantive transparency would include public disclosure of all musicians’ salaries and the rationale for those salaries.

To achieve fairness through transparency, a symphony orchestra must also involve all its stakeholders. Musicians’ unions, which already set baseline requirements for pay and other working conditions, should also develop and enforce best practices at the highest echelons of elite orchestras. Artistic and financial administrators should practice open communication regarding organizational priorities, including hiring, promotion, and compensation. Concertgoers should encourage symphony orchestras to provide maximum transparency so they can rest assured that their patronage supports equal opportunity. Donors who contribute large gifts should condition their endowments on transparent and fair employment practices. Arts journalists should scrutinize symphonies and hold them accountable.

While these recommendations are tailored to the symphony orchestra workplace, similar measures will improve fairness in any workplace. Women in virtually every field continue to face bias, discrimination, and pay disparities. Transparency allows the best minds in any field to assess the problem and provide solutions.

Radical transparency would, for example, address gender disparities in tech hiring, where a recent study found that in 63 percent of tech company hires, women were offered less money than men in the same position at the same company. Radical transparency would also illuminate the reasons that women are half of law school graduates but only 20 percent of equity partners at law firms. Transparency could have similar benefits in every sector of the labor market.

The BSO’s response to this lawsuit has the potential to cultivate equality across all industries and all demographics. Too often, employers faced with discrimination lawsuits choose to protect their bottom line with a web of nondisclosure agreements. We hope the BSO chooses instead to offer a ground-breaking model of transparency to match its transcendent artistry.