Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What Works: Closing the Gender Wage Gap in Boston

As part of HUB Week, the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School presented a panel discussion about the public-private-academic partnership facilitated by the Office of the Mayor of Boston and the Boston Women's Workforce Council that resulted in innovative, research-based interventions to reduce the wage gap in the city. Victoria A. Budson, Executive Director, Women and Public Policy Program moderated panelists Iris Bohnet,  Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Women and Public Policy Program; Megan Costello, Executive Director of the Mayor's Office of Women's Advancement, City of Boston; Katharine Lusk, Executive Director of the Initiative on Cities, Boston University; and Michelle Wu, Councilor At-Large, Boston City Council.

The first step to look for ways to reduce the wage gap is the applicant's first contact with any employer, the recruitment process. Professor Bohnet started the panel with a discussion about reducing bias in interview processes. Bias is very difficult to eliminate, we are all biased in one way or another, "it has something to do with how our minds work... we are all affected by these biases independent of our own demographic characteristics" she explained. Her research focuses on ways to "debunk" these cognitive glitches in order to improve recruitment and interview processes. Research has shown that interviews are not particularly strong tools for predicting future on-the-job performance, "blind evaluations are great, but in most of your jobs those aren't possible." What is the next best option? There is a way to structure an interview to make it more useful: "You should force yourself to ask every job candidate the very same five questions, in the same order, and ideally... compare question by question". She shared that this is actually the way she grades papers students write for her class!
WAPPP Panel Discussion on the wage gap in Boston, part of HUB Week
Katharine Lusk, who according to Victoria Budson, "really began the transition and change around these metrics in the city" followed Professor Bohnet's intervention. She talked about what former Kennedy School Professor Samantha Power referred to as being a "bureaucratic samurai", which essentially means having the ability to defy the status quo while still being able to operate within a bureaucratic setting. In Ted Kennedy's words, it means knowing how to operationalize good intentions. Katharine was working with former Mayor Thomas Menino, when he set out, in 2013, to make Boston "the premiere city for working women". They focused on creating evidence-based policy to benefit women, including capital resources for early educators, support for women entrepreneurs and women in STEM, and of course, pay equity. They created the Women's Workforce Council in a model of collaborative governance as "a new way of solving a very old and tractable problem". This effort brought talent to the table. The Mayor's Office then formed further coalitions with businesses and with a team at Boston University, which figured out a way for employers to share sensitive wage data anonymously, in order to provide the city with information that allowed them to determine just how large the wage gap is.

Victoria Budson noted that "it's really about whether your ideas catch fire", and that enlisting stakeholders beyond those who obviously benefit from a policy, as Katharine did, is key to getting things done in government. She then introduced the next speaker, Megan Costello, who spoke about her experience as the Campaign Director for Mayor Marty Walsh and now as the Executive Director of the Mayor's Office of Women's Advancement, who works closely with the Women's Workforce Council. "We have to be intentional about diversity," she said, and explained that their approach is three-pronged: they are focusing on working with businesses so they can join the data effort previously set up by Katharine Lusk and her team; secondly, they are working with individual women setting up helpful tools for them, like free workshops on salary negotiation, and finally, they are working on supporting equal pay legislation. Their aim is to really change the culture. Ambitious but possible.

Finally, City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu, spoke about the importance of having leaders of different perspectives sitting at the table; they can pave the way for change. She said she is convinced there is no better place in the world to be making change than in Boston, a city that is blessed with incredible resources for innovation. "Government innovation is not an oxymoron!", she exclaimed. She spoke about her efforts, working together with the Mayor's Office, to make parental leave a reality for Boston families, and other work she had been able to do as a City Councilor like putting in place a training program for the Boston Housing Authority to assist domestic violence victims, and even make the forms at the Registry friendly for all types of families, including same-sex couples. As the youngest serving member of the Council and the first Asian American to be elected as Councilor, she was a true inspiration.

The audience was very enthusiastic and put forth a number of questions and comments. A wonderful closing for a conversation full of insights, new ideas, and exciting work, all pointing towards achieving equality for women.

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