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The Journal Gazette

  • Washington Post photos Elizabeth Rowe, 44, joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as its principal flutist at age 29 in 2004. Her first professional experience came with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

Friday, December 14, 2018 1:00 am

Facing the music

Flutist's suit against Boston Symphony raises gender-equity issues

Geoff Edgers | Washington Post

Fort Wayneto Boston

“My main long-term goal would be to get a principal flute position in a fairly good-size orchestra,'' 24-year-old Elizabeth Rowe told a reporter for The Journal Gazette in 1999.

The woman who would later join the Boston Symphony Orchestra got her professional start in 1998 as the principal flutist for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

Rowe grew up in Oregon; her parents were music-loving college professors.

She began playing the flute at age 7 and earned her music degree at the University of Southern California.

She was the assistant principal flute in the National Symphony Orchestra until 2004.

In her 1999 Journal Gazette interview, Rowe described her job as “very intensive, high-pressure work.''

“It's completely erratic,'' she added. “One day we have nothing to do, and the other day we are working for 12 hours. It's hard to have a normal life with that schedule.''

Rowe described a typical day as two to four hours of self-directed practice, along with an orchestra rehearsal of up to five hours over the Phil's 38-week season.

According to the article, a full-time Philharmonic musician earned between $18,376 and $22,974 in 1999. 

BOSTON - On a winter day 14 years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced that it had finally found a new principal flutist. 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 was a man or a woman, black or white. But after Rowe had the job, something important changed. 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 she should make an equal salary and 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.”

Rowe has entered mediation with the BSO.

A case of fairness

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. 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 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 have a website – 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 to 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.

Industry-wide concern

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. Pay is determined by complicated factors rooted in history, subjectivity and negotiating strategy. There's also the highly competitive, ultra-secretive orchestra culture, not a place where compensation is openly discussed.

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. “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.

Other factors

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.”

Ferrillo, who arrived in Boston in 2001, 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 salary demand, saying he doesn't think it's his place to tell BSO management how much it should pay anyone.

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.”

 'Where I want to be'

On Aug. 25, nearly two months after Rowe had filed her suit, the BSO emailed 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 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.”