Read below for my Q&A with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Flutist, Elizabeth Rowe.
Katie Couric: You were named the BSO’s principal flutist in 2004 when you were just 29. What did it mean to you to achieve this incredibly esteemed position so early in your career?
Elizabeth Rowe: I was overwhelmingly proud to become a member of one of the greatest orchestras in the world. I had spent my life working towards earning a position like this in a major orchestra; accomplishing it at the BSO, with its rich history and inspiring artistry, was incredibly exciting to me. In addition, the BSO’s principal flute position had become famous within the orchestral world in recent decades, first because of the long tenure of Doriot Anthony Dwyer (a female pioneer in what had been traditionally a male dominated industry), and later because the position became notoriously hard to fill, twice remaining vacant for years at a time. When the position was offered to me, I understood the importance of my accomplishment.
Katie: The BSO is famous for their “blind auditions” (during which musicians performing before the selection committee can’t be seen) as a way to guard against bias. While commendable, is there some sense of irony given what you experienced negotiating a fair salary?
Elizabeth: The BSO showed great leadership and vision in the 1950s when they adopted the blind audition process, which is now considered the industry norm (with some notable exceptions). That said, the orchestral industry at large still struggles to keep all forms of bias at bay—it’s really no different from any other industry. Interestingly, research shows that when some safeguards are in place to protect against bias (blind auditions or the presence of a union, for example), corporations can sometimes incorrectly assume that all instances of bias have been addressed.
Katie: You continually asked for a raise over the course of your time at the BSO – something a lot of us are hesitant to do – what do you think it was that empowered you to keep pushing the issue?
Elizabeth: I truly dislike asking for a raise, but I also know that the BSO recognizes the rights of tenured union members to push for better employment terms and conditions. And the only way to improve one’s standing is to ask. I also know that just excelling at one’s job isn’t necessarily enough—a big part of how we demonstrate our value to others is by being brave enough to come right out and say “this is what I’m worth.” Asserting myself in this way does not come naturally to me, but I believe it’s important to be tenacious and not apologize for stating one’s value.
Katie: I’m actually a small part of your story, which I didn’t even realize at the time. Tell us about your experience being asked by the BSO to participate in my documentary on gender inequality and then having the offer rescinded…
Elizabeth: I am truly inspired by the way you continue to uncover the connections between gender inequality, sexual harassment and unconscious bias, and how you explore the ways these challenges overlap and multiply for women in the workplace. The classical music world might seem a bit esoteric or remote, but we face the same workplace issues that so many other industries do. Although I didn’t have the chance to explore these challenges with you (which would have been a career highlight for me!), I believe that the broader discussions you encourage in your ongoing work are challenging the orchestral world to think about ways we can grow and improve.
Katie: You are an extremely private person and this very public process must be very uncomfortable for you – what motivated you to carry on? What were you hoping to achieve on a larger scale beyond ensuring a fair paycheck for yourself (which is very important by the way!)?
Elizabeth: You are right, I am a very private person. I’m accustomed to being in only one type of spotlight—stage lights! It has become clear to me, however, that my efforts are symbolic and meaningful to a lot of people. I am grateful for the many messages of support and encouragement I continue to receive, from women (and men) of all ages, different professions, and many walks of life. These messages provide a vital boost of energy and inspiration. (One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this process is that personal messages of encouragement really do make a difference—I’ve started sending my own private messages to people I admire, knowing that my small note might actually help.)
On a larger scale, for all those seeking an environment free of discrimination, my hope is that by raising my voice, I am helping to shine a light on pay practices in our industry, and that by doing so, we can work to develop more transparent and equitable policies for everyone. I believe that women and men alike benefit from the secure knowledge that we are all being compensated fairly.
Katie: Your colleague, the principal oboist John Ferrillo wrote a letter in support of you during the legal process in which he referred to you as his “equal” partner and said you are “every bit my match in skills, if not more so.” What did his support mean to you? What does it say about the role our male colleagues can play in the fight for equal pay?
Elizabeth: John continues to be an extraordinarily ethical and cherished colleague. His deeply generous support (and that of so many of my other colleagues) is powerful and meaningful to me, and I am filled with ongoing gratitude to them all. I hope women seeking pay equity in the future will also benefit from colleagues who are willing to share details of their compensation packages to help shine a light on pay disparity. And I encourage men to stand with their female colleagues, by voicing their support and–more importantly– by disclosing their pay packages in the service of greater equality for all.
Katie: You’ve said of your motivations going into the case: “There has not been a lot of good press in our industry recently around women and the treatment of women and I genuinely saw this as a really great opportunity for the orchestra to have something positive to stand for.” Do you think you were able to achieve that in the end?
Elizabeth: I’m really proud to add my voice to an ongoing conversation happening around the country and within the classical music industry. One of the important points I want to emphasize is that I undertake these continued conversations from a position of great privilege. I have an excellent, secure job, I earn a very good salary, and I have a lot of stability and support in my life. Many women who face these powerful challenges don’t have the resources or safety net that I do. Long-term systemic change is a slow process, and we all have different opportunities to help make change. My biggest hope is that my efforts will contribute in some small way to the larger challenge, and that by leveraging my privilege, I can make a small difference for others. The BSO agrees that “in the same spirit of improvement and innovation it demonstrated more than six decades ago, the orchestra will continue to collaborate with musicians, staff, and other leaders in the field to accelerate the process of achieving gender parity.”
Katie: What would you tell other women in a similar situation as yours? What’s your best piece of advice to offer because of this experience?
Elizabeth: On a practical level, it’s really important to have as much data and knowledge as possible when advocating for equal pay—this is where those male allies come in. Educate yourself about your rights, about what is fair and reasonable to expect, and about what steps you may have to take to get there. In our state, the new Massachusetts Equal Pay Act is a critical piece of the puzzle.
On a personal level, my advice goes back to those letters and notes of support. It can feel very isolating to stand up for yourself, but legions of people believe in fairness and equality and will stand with you when you need them. I hope that fewer and fewer women will have to resort to lawsuits or public action to achieve equity, but until that day comes, we should gather strength in the huge numbers of people who believe in this cause.