How a lawsuit over gender-equal pay could change the classical music industry

A journalist covering an ongoing gender discrimination lawsuit launched against the Boston Symphony Orchestra by its principal flutist says the case could have broader implications for classical musicians.

Elizabeth Rowe suing Boston Symphony Orchestra for paying her thousands of dollars less than male oboist

Boston Symphony Orchestra members play from the balcony during a rehearsal at the Symphony Hall in Boston, Mass., on Sept. 26, 2014. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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A journalist covering an ongoing gender discrimination lawsuit launched against the Boston Symphony Orchestra by its principal flutist says the case could have broader implications for classical musicians.

"Everybody's going to be watching to see what happens with Elizabeth Rowe," Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers told The Current's guest host, Laura Lynch.

"It could reshape how salaries are set amongst these stars."

In July, Rowe sued the Boston Symphony Orchestra for paying her tens of thousands of dollars less than her male colleague, John Ferrillo.

Ferrillo — a friend of Rowe's and the symphony's principal oboist — was earning $70,000 more than Rowe at the time she launched the lawsuit, Edgers said.

That pay gap is now about $64,000, due to a raise the orchestra gave Rowe, unrelated to the lawsuit, Edgers said.

The flutist claims she has been featured as a soloist more often than any other principal player in the orchestra since she joined in 2004 — 28 times, compared to 21 for Ferrillo, according to Edgers — and she wants to be compensated for playing a central role.

A question of skill?

The orchestra views things differently.

"They believe — one — that the oboe is a more difficult instrument to play than the flute, and also that the oboe is considered sort of the leader of the orchestra after the concert master," Edgers said.

Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers has been covering flutist Elizabeth Rowe's gender discrimination lawsuit against the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Lila Hempel-Edgers)

"They basically say that they're not comparable instruments."

As part of the lawsuit, Ferrillo has filed a statement in support of Rowe "as a person and a player," Edgers said. The oboist couldn't say, however, which instrument is more important or more difficult to play, the reporter added.

"The way he described it was every instrument has its own private hell," Edgers said.

To discuss equal pay in the classical music industry, and whether gender affects which instruments boys and girls pick up in the classroom, Lynch talked to:

  • Geoff Edgers, Washington Post reporter covering Elizabeth Rowe's lawsuit against the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
  • Katherine Carleton, executive director at Orchestras Canada.​
  • Sommer Forrester, assistant professor of music at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Imogen Birchard.

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