Boston Symphony’s equal pay defence: The flute is not an oboe

Boston Symphony’s equal pay defence: The flute is not an oboe


norman lebrecht

October 06, 2018

The BSO has responded to a claim for pay discrimination by its principal oboe, Elizabeth Rowe, asking the court to dismiss her case. Ms Rowe said she earned $70,000 less than the principal flute, The orchestra says, among other things that

– The flute and the oboe are not comparable instruments, nor are they treated as such by most major orchestras in the United States.

– Each instrument in an orchestra also requires different skills and effort to play at the highest level. Setting compensation for each musician, particularly principals, is a nuanced process involving many factors. Gender, however, is not and has never been one of those factors at the BSO.

The BSO adds that Rowe is currently its fifth highest paid principal musician, ahead of nine male principals. She is also paid more for each solo performance than any BSO principal musician.



  • Bruce says:

    “Ms Rowe said she earned $70,000 less than the principal flute oboe

  • Malcolm James says:

    This episode shows the inappropriateness of gender equality legislation (or, indeed, any other type of equality legislation) where salaries are inidividually negotiated and makes me wonder how such a system can be justified in a fundamentally co-operative undertaking. Is it fair that the principal flute is paid more than the principal oboe in, says, the Cleveland orchestra? Doesn’t the fact that different orchestras have very different assessments of the relative worth of the two principals suggest that one position is not inherently more valuable than the other and that it comes down to the assessment of individual worth and bargaining power and bargaining skill.

    In the Cleveland both principals are male, so no-one cares that one is paid less than the other. Equality legislation probably wouldn’t be an issue if Ms Rowe were paid more than the principal oboe, so, if she were to win, we could get a situation where it is OK to pay women more than men, but not less. If Ms Rowe were the only female woodwind principal, could she let the three men slug it out and benchmark her position to whichever male came out top?

    I emphasise that I in no way condone systematically paying women less than men, but the fact that she is better paid than nine male principals suggests that that is not the case her and my principal problem is with allowing principals to negotiate their own contracts, rather than having a rate for the job. You could even have a pay scale for principals, where their initial salary might depend on their previous experience, but they would progress to the top of the scale in due course. A pay scale is transparent. Individually negotiated contracts are not.

  • MacroV says:

    I’m largely on the BSO’s side here, other than that I’d say it’s not worth the bad PR to maintain that big a differential, and even if Mr. Ferillo was paid more than many other principals by virtue of being hired away from the MET, that was nearly 20 years ago and you’d think that differential might have shrunk by now.

    However, the argument that the flute and oboe aren’t comparable instruments, while of course true, ignores the fact that in any orchestra, the base salary scale is the same for all instruments; i.e. the second flute and a section viola, entering the orchestra at the same time, will earn the same.

    • M2N2K says:

      “…the second flute and a section viola, entering the orchestra at the same time, will earn the same…” Not necessarily. As a “solo” player, second flutist (or any other non-string second) might be able in some cases to negotiate a slightly higher rate of compensation than a string section player.

  • Marg says:

    Well, thats an eye opener … didnt occur to me that principal in one section could be paid significantly less than the principal in another. Seems rather odd, is all I can say. Guess I dont understand the politics or whatever it is going on here.

  • Doug says:

    Better correct this fast or it gets lumped in with fake news.

  • Sue says:

    When I was teaching high school I was paid the same as a high level English teacher as those who taught kids how to play basketball and make cookies. Endless hours of research in the library counted for nothing in the pay stakes because the union had the whole game sown up and I had to take it on the chin. I’m betting the sports and food teachers didn’t have endless hours of complex essays to write either. If I had been able to negotiate my own salary you can take it to the bank that I would have earned more than those teachers I mentioned (plus the large number of incompetent ones!).

    So, tell me again about fairness in the income stakes!!

    • Sue says:

      I see my lack of punctuation in my opening sentence has created ambiguity!! There should be commas around ‘as a high level English teacher’!! Fail.

      • Bill says:

        You confused “sewn” with “sown” as well. Maybe the home ec and phys ed teachers were relatively underpaid by comparison!

    • Enquiring mind says:

      I teach twice as many courses and make half as much as some of my colleagues. I’ve found that the only thing more pointless than expecting fairness is expecting your colleagues to sympathize.

    • Quodlibet! says:

      OMG and all this time I thought you were a musician!!1elenvty!

    • Scotty says:

      My God! Defenseless children were exposed to Sue!

      • V.Lind says:

        And she “taught” them English, with which she is clearly not too conversant. Her commentary here does not indicate a widely-read or reflective personality. Her students must have grown up to join the mass of under-educated, under-informed, semi-literates who voted you-know-how.

    • NYMike says:

      Ah yes – the usual anti-union diatribe from the redoubtable Sue for whom facts don’t enter into the discussion. In US major orchestras, the local union merely sets the BASIC wages for all players in cooperation with the orchestras players’ committee at the bargaining table. Any overscale for principals and solo wind players is left to negotiation between said player and management.

    • Alex Davies says:

      I don’t know about in America, but in the UK sports teachers are typically out on the playing fields in all weathers six days per week, including coaching teams after school hours. Speaking as somebody who has played rugby at 8.30 on a Monday morning in an English December, I can attest that it isn’t much fun. Those teachers will also be expected to put in considerable effort keeping themselves fit (diet and training) and playing sports to a high level in their spare time in order to keep up their skills. When I was at school we had teachers who competed at county and international level (one had captained England). Also, do not underestimate the theoretical work that goes into teaching sports. It’s not all playing games. Good sports teachers also need technical, strategic, and scientific knowledge. If they are preparing students for examinations they will also have essays to mark. I know a lot of people like to think that sports teachers are stupid and have an easy time of it, but it’s a tough job with long hours requiring a very wide range of skills and a huge level of commitment.

      • Alex Davies says:

        A quick PS: Don’t American sports teachers have to travel a lot for work too? Here in the UK sports teachers are constantly having to drive a minibuses full of children around the county to play matches against other schools. If your team comes top of the county you find yourself driving your team all over the country to compete at national level. They may even have to travel internationally (when I was at school I remember our teams competing as far afield as continental Europe, Canada, and South Africa). So while the English teacher can lie in on Saturday morning and then spend a cosy day at home with a pile of essays, the sports teacher will very likely be driving his team across the county at 8 o’clock in the morning to stand in a cold, wet field for two hours. I reckon they probably work for every penny they earn!

  • Phillip Ayling says:

    Elizabeth Rowe is a flutist, not an oboist. That said, many orchestras pay substitutes much less than those with tenure. I am guessing that a Guest Conductor (no matter the salary he/she is receiving compared to the contracted Music Director) is never told: “You don’t have the tenured oboist today; they are getting less money than our regular oboist so you can’t demand or expect as much performance-wise”.

    • M2N2K says:

      Experienced conductors don’t have to be told the second and third part of that sentence, because they know what the first part means.

  • Enquiring mind says:

    Would you pay principal horn the same as principal trombone? No way, if you know the demands on them in the orchestra.

    • Max Grimm says:

      “Would you pay principal horn the same as principal trombone?”
      Yes, (here) you would.
      Most orchestras in Germany have fixed scales, meaning that every tutti-musician, regardless of the instrument they play, receives the same base salary. Increases are once again nonnegotiable and the same for every musician, based on the amount of years they have played in the orchestra. And finally, all principals receive the same “principal pay”, meaning the principal horn earns as much as the principal trombone, who earns as much as the principal oboe, who earns as much as the principal flute, who earns as much as the principal viola, who earns as much as the principal cello etc.
      Special or individually negotiated salaries are very rare exceptions and mostly reserved for 1st Concertmasters/Concertmasters at that.

  • Escamillo says:

    How much is the Triangle player paid?

    • Tamino says:

      Same as the marimbaphone player. Same as the small drums player. Same as the big drums player.
      Same as the cymbals player.
      All played by the same person.

    • Chris says:

      The triangle player in most British orchestras, would PROBABLY earn more than tutti string players in those orchestras, at least at the start of their tenure. That’s because most percussionists are hired as at least sub-principal players in their section

  • Herr Doktor says:

    As someone who has been and continues to be a regular attendee of the BSO for decades, it’s my opinion that John Ferrillo is a far better oboist than Elizabeth Rowe is a flutist. She is first-rate and reliable, but she does not rise above that into the realm of exceptional or that she stands out in an unusually distinctive manner, much as one of her predecessors, the outstanding flutist Jacques Zoon did. Or another predecessor, Doriot Anthony Dwyer. THEY would have deserved to be paid equal to an artist of the caliber of John Ferrillo. But with all due respect to Ms. Rowe, she’s just not in that league. She’s generic excellent. But they’re all a step above that.

    • Edo says:

      Not to mention that it is the oboe who set the tone, blend, balance and colour of the entire woodwind section. In this sense the principal oboe is the principal of all other woodwinds principals.

    • Malcolm James says:

      This is clearly just a personal opinion, but maybe it is one shared by the BSO. However, it is very difficult to prove in a court of law. If Ms Rowe were to win, we would be allowed to judge that one man is better than another, one woman is better than another, or a woman is better than a man, but not that a man is better than a woman. Individually negotiated contracts open up all sorts of cans of worms when you have no objective means of comparing performance and worth.

    • Alexa Clarinet says:

      Herr Doktor,

      I understand that this is your opinion, but it is still a truly unpleasant thing to say. Rowe is an outstanding flutist, a phenomenal teacher, and an unbelievably kind person. Once you reach the level of skill and musicianship of Rowe and Ferrillo, no one player can be said to be “better” than another. They all add their own personal ideas and nuances to the music, and that is what makes them great players. So have some appreciation for every great musician, even if you don’t like their playing in relation to others.

      (I know this comment is about a week late, but I felt it necessary to say something.)

  • Harold M Goldner says:

    I am not going to take a position in the debate. I will say as an employment lawyer that the Equal Pay Act requires that women and men be paid for “comparable work”, that is work that has “substantially equivalent” requirements, but that an employer can use “factors other than sex” to serve as criteria for pay.

    In the highly skilled arena of orchestra players in top orchestras, I suspect there’s enough nuance for an orchestra to argue credibly that principal oboe and principal flute are not substantially equivalent work.

  • Thrown_out_of_the_Kremlin_for_Singing says:

    An oboist has to spend extracurricular time buying and modifying reeds. It can take hours for an oboist or bassoonist to get a reed into the condition he or she is really comfortable with. This should be taken into account in determining the salaries!

    • NYMike says:

      You don’t want to go down this road. FYI, the astronomical cost of buying and maintaining 1st quality string instruments far exceeds anything wind instrument players pay. Your line of “reasoning” is best left out of the equation.

      • Piers says:

        Factually incorrect!

        • M2N2K says:

          Looks quite accurate to me.

          • Piers says:

            The reality of the situation may not be a convenient truth for you. A hard-working, jobbing oboist’s expenses are just as high overall, often higher, than a hard-working, jobbing violinist.

        • Bill says:

          No, Piers, the facts are that high-end woodwind instruments might reach as much as $50,000. That’s about what a starter professional violin costs, one that you might expect to find in the hands of a serious college or conservatory student. 6 figure price tags are not at all uncommon. and occasionally you’ll see 7 figures, although often that will be an instrument that belongs to the orchestra or a bank, rather than the player.

        • Chris says:


          Can you verify with numbers in which way an oboist (or any other woodwind player generally outspends string players when purchasing their instruments and other peripherals?
          And Bill, having BEEN a (fairly) high-end string player, (I use your description of their status) and formerly married to a pretty much high-end oboist I can state categorically that even for her three instruments and all the ‘bits’ (main oboe, spare oboe in case of main one requiring attention, and cor anglais) she didn’t spend anywhere near $50k, whereas I personally KNOW high-end string players who have spent between $120k and $200k on their instruments and bows.

          • Bill says:

            Chris, I was using a conservative number – my bassoonist acquaintances have said that a really nice bassoon might run $30-35k, and I found a gold flute for sale for $35k. Further searching just now turned up a platinum flute for $80k. Call it $100k. So-called modern Italian violins start there, and 19th century ones easily double or triple that, even talking about “player” instruments as opposed to pristine specimens that collectors prefer. Woodwind players aren’t buying instruments whose prices also include substantial value as antiques, unlike most string players.

          • Piers says:

            As a pro oboist, I own 5 cors anglais, 2 oboes, 1 oboe d’amoré, 1 historical oboe, 2 oboe gouging machines, 2 cor anglais gouging machines, 2 cane shaping machines, 30 different oboe/cor/d’amoré/bass oboe shapers. Add to that the expense of buying cane all year round, every year in order to supply a 40 year career with reeds and you’ll soon arrive at, “factually incorrect”!

          • M2N2K says:

            Not really.

        • Chris says:

          Piers I would be SERIOUSLY interested in the professional justification for possessing FIVE cors anglais, but I do understand the need to have a second, stand-by oboe in case of mechanical or other failure, and an oboe d’amore for repertoire reasons. But why, and what do you mean by, an ‘historical’ oboe ? Is it one like they play in the Vienna Philharmonic for example, and I am aware that the Eastern European players sometimes use slightly modified instruments rather than the average Marigaux, Puchner and similar. I suppose if one uses your collection as an analogy, a modern string player would probably possess a main instrument plus a ‘stand-by’ one in case of catastrophic failure (tail-pin coming out, fingerboard becoming detached) and then they would need one strung as a baroque instrument, plus all the first choice and spare bows, bridges, strings, etc etc.
          I guess where we do agree is that the average listener does not appreciate that all of these instruments USUALLY have to be funded from the player’s total income package, (unless the player is lucky enough to have the loan of a ‘fine’ instrument from either the orchestra, or a benefactor.)

  • Lauren says:

    If the law is designed to ensure men and women are paid equally for comparable work then I would say the court has upheld the law. We should be glad there was an investigation into the matter, and for those saying Ms Rowe does not deserve as much as the Principal Oboe, your opinion is shared by the BSO and the court. There is no need to bicker about it, and it is not necessary to degrade Ms Rowe for seeking equal pay for her outstanding flute playing (given she was hired into this position by those who believed she was the best flutist for the job). This law now gives women support in seeking equal pay, and even if this case did not go in favor of Ms. Rowe, it is still a step in the right direction. No matter what your opinion on the facts of the case, I hope we can all agree that laws like this one are necessary.

  • VQP245 says:

    When Fritz Reiner hired Julius Baker to play principal flute in Pittsburgh, his response to Reiner’s question about salary was “same as the principal oboe”….

  • MacroV says:

    Since the BSO has actually taken the time, trouble, and no doubt expense of lawyers, to ask the court to dismiss the claim, might it not have been cheaper just to pay her a higher salary? Lawyers don’t come cheaper than principal flutists, generally.

  • Bruce says:

    Macrov is the only person (as far as I can remember) who points out that, when Ferrillo joined the orchestra, he was already a superstar in his field and a principal of the highest-paid orchestra in the country.

    Just like in the sports industry, hiring a superstar player away from a superstar team — for whom any move will be perceived as lateral at best and quite possibly a step down — requires more money than hiring a talented, well-respected (but not yet “super”) star from a well-respected team, for whom this is a significant step upward.

    And as with sports teams, the newcomer may turn out to be just as crucial to the group’s overall success as the veteran — sometimes more so. But that doesn’t change the fact that one of them joined the team at a higher pay scale and has been there longer, and so will probably remain the higher-paid of the two.

    I know it looks like I’m refusing to acknowledge the possibility that this could be a case of gender discrimination; really, I’m not. It’s just that there is a very important factor (starting pay — based not on gender but on reputation) that makes differences like this common.

    I will guess that if they had hired Elaine Douvas from the Met instead of Ferrillo, the starting-pay situation would have been pretty much the same.

    Ms. Rowe has been in Boston for 13 or 14 years now, and has proven herself to be one of the great orchestral flutists of her time. IMHO she’s worth whatever amount of money she can get out of the BSO (and probably more). But say if they hired a principal clarinet, for example, who came up, as she did, from a very-good-but-not-quite-top-5 orchestra, and was not [yet] one of the superstars of the instrument: would anyone expect that new player — male or female — to earn as much as Ms. Rowe now does, right off the bat? I would venture to say most likely not.

    • Karl says:

      The American way is to let the market decide. There is nothing stopping her from applying for jobs with other orchestras that pay more.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        And what if the market decides to pay women, as a matter of course, less than men, just because they are women. (There are some reasons to argue this happens…it is an open question among academic economists).

        • Karl says:

          Actually that has been settled. The pay gap is a myth. A study by the human resources firm Korn Ferry Hay Group in 2016 showed that when women and men do the same job they make the same money. The study shows that gender pay disparities all but disappear if comparisons are made like for like, looking at individuals doing the same function in the same company.

          Also a Department of Labor study released in 2009, which reviewed upwards of 50 peer-reviewed papers, concluded the wage gap, “may be almost entirely the result of individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

          The average man working full-time worked almost two more hours per week in 2014 compared to the average woman. Men also take the more dangerous jobs that have higher pay. Men make up over 90% of workplace fatalities.

          Also see the Wall Street Journal :
          Once education, marital status and occupations are considered, the ‘gender wage gap’ all but disappears.

          Even Politifact labeled President Obama’s statement ‘ women are paid “77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men” as false.

          • Ed Townes says:

            Hmmm. That Korn Ferry study you mentioned had me intrigued enough to look it up. Here’s what you left out – and a la Trump-Clinton, I believe that an unbiased fact-checker would convict you of “dirty pool.”

            To be sure, this data did not cover the United States….

            As a demographic group, women get paid less than men. That’s true still. That’s because they still aren’t getting to the highest-paying jobs, functions, and industries, while men thrive in all three.

            That latter all but puts you and your arguments down for the count! We ARE obviously talking about high paying jobs in a high paying “industry,” AND we are talking about an industry where women are no longer limited to “the harpist and maybe a handful in the strings & woodwinds.” … Of course, one can always manipulate statistics like this, but while a law firm can point to “rain-making” to maybe account for male partners earning more … or seniority disparities with DEMONSTRABLE productivity/financial impact, the BSO and its lawyers surely look to be caught with … their pants down.

          • Second French Horn says:

            Not really, the first study might not be from the US but you didn’t mention the other five they listed…I mean if we are going to be talking “dirty pool” and all. Also, this case is as simple as going to court and saying “An oboe is not a flute” case dismissed.

            Anyone who has played in an orchestra knows that different instruments require different skills, the oboe is extremely challenging (anything is at this level) and comparatively they are not the same.

    • Ed Townes says:

      Your comment is extremely well-reasoned, and it combines knowledge of the field with common sense.

      However – having just heard the NPR story where, I believe, the reporter claimed that the BSO’s defense (perhaps “off the record”) relied on “greater difficulty” re oboe … and fewer very excellent oboists.

      That seems flimsier than the points you raise. Other reporting I’ve seen mentions that adjustments for seniority WERE made (in calculations & comparisons), and that does NOT explain the disparity. [I’m sure YOU are more willing to entertain the notion that it’s chromosomal than would be an orchestra who will both look bad & incur a big financial hit.]

      Last, your sports analogy is wobbly – not only are there countless instances of players who are given contracts that prove to be “excessive” shown the exit, one way or another – true, Mr. Ferrillo, by all accounts, was an excellent hire – but most players understand that there’s a marked “inflationary” trend – i.e., all other things being equal, take any 2 contracts signed 3 years apart and the more recent one will be “richer.”

      I *get* “singing bonus,” but if the report that Mr. Ferrillo contracted to be paid “200% of the base principal’s salary, to adjust for his prior salary” [whatever that means], in a job-for-life environment, that sounds more than a little … unreasonable.

      I think that this is a more benign version of the MANY reports of harassment recently – what was ONCE ordinary (only recently has the “what’s wrong with it?” defense been all but eliminated) PERSISTS, much as radioactivity does. The older among us surely remember when “but HE is responsible for his family’s well-being” was the “trump card.” Nobody would say that now, but patterns 100 years old don’t disappear in 10.

      From a practical standpoint, eliminating the gaps almost surely can’t/won’t/shouldn’t (?) come by lowering men’s salaries. Rowe’s proposed remedy of an instant adjustment to her salary (and presumably a great many other female musicians) and a payment to cover any disparity RETROactively … might put even the BSO in financial peril.

      But even the best laws [pay equity, here] have certain “unintended consequences,” and if they had “carved out” exceptions for “cultural institutions,” … well, that simply could not have happened in 2018 Mass.

  • Sara M. says:

    She’s generically excellent but not uniquely outstanding. She’s a flautist—not principal horn or oboe. Moreover, She was recruited from a lesser orchestra and individuals all negotiate their own salaries—you get what you negotiate, that’s the us empire.