In Boston, where women make 83 cents for every dollar paid to men, an effort is underway to train every working woman to better negotiate her salary. (Pablo Iglesias for The Washington Post)

BOSTON — Eleven women huddle in an aging community center, leafing through 27-page guides on how to negotiate pay. They speak of watching YouTube tutorials, of Googling market rates, of practicing at home with partners, of vowing not to cry at the office.

They’re part of America’s largest civic experiment to close the gender wage gap, launched this fall in Boston.

Women here earn 83 cents for every dollar paid to men, 4 cents higher than the national statistic. Disparities persist across age groups, industries and companies, researchers have found — even when colleagues of the opposite sex hold identical education levels and job titles.

That’s why Boston is offering free, two-hour salary negotiation classes to every woman who works in the city. They started in October, two years after former mayor Thomas Menino pledged that Boston would become the first U.S. city to achieve pay parity.

Think of it as an intimate conversation with 170,000 women.

Economists doubt the unprecedented approach will yield much of a difference, considering the social forces that exacerbate the gap. Also, a growing body of research suggests employers may be predisposed to respond negatively to women who request more.

City officials stress that Boston’s focus on equal pay is an economic imperative. The breadwinners in most local households with children, after all, are women. And since a raft of studies has shown that women don’t negotiate less skillfully, they simply negotiate less often, the central message of the program is: Give it a shot.

Tonight’s instructor is Megan Costello, executive director of Boston’s Office of Women’s Advancement. She asks the group to role-play. Some pretend to be employees, gunning for $66,000, and the rest act as bosses, offering up to $54,000.

The employees practice their pitches: I’m worth it, and here’s why.

“I get nervous even acting these scenarios out,” says Christy Betit, a woman with long chestnut hair who works in hospitality. “I can’t even pretend to ask for a raise without wanting to throw up.”

She takes a deep breath.

“Okay,” she says, “I’ve trained hundreds of students who have gone on to get great jobs. I studied theater, and I know how to engage a room.”

Remember, Costello tells them: You have power. A company’s search for new workers takes time and money. Smart managers try to hold on to the talent they have.

“And trust me,” she says, “every man does this. Every man negotiates.”

‘It starts with leadership’

Boston’s feminist makeover reflects a strategy from its native Harvard Business School: Experiment until something works.

A decade ago, the university acknowledged its own gender equity crisis. In 2005, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers ignited a public relations firestorm by suggesting at an economics conference that “innate” differences between women and men may explain the dearth of elite female scientists.

By 2007, business school leaders knew they had a gender problem after a third of junior women faculty members quit in a single school year. Female students who arrived with the same test scores as their male counterparts also appeared to disproportionately fall behind in class participation grades.

So professors took action. They recorded lectures, for example, to see if male students truly spoke up more than female students, a perception reflected in the grades. They found no significant difference in speaking frequency or comment quality, concluding the men simply sounded more authoritative. Assessed for substance over style, women saw better scores. The grade gap closed in 2011.

“Heightened consciousness among the faculty and students probably made the biggest difference,” said Robin Ely, an organizational behavior professor at the Harvard Business School. “It starts with leadership. There has to be support in terms of information and resources to help organizations take a look at their culture and understand how they operate.”

Boston’s mission has good intentions, she said, but the city should carefully consider its message. “The conversation should not be around women’s deficiencies, which is inaccurate,” Ely said, “or special treatment, which creates backlash.”

Conventional wisdom, the kind that climbs bestseller lists, suggests women in pay talks should be kinder, gentler, a team player.

“But the emphasis should be on the employer,” said economist Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Women shouldn’t have to contort themselves into pretzels and go through all these social gyrations to be taken seriously.”

Boston wants to build a successful model for other major cities to adopt, said Costello, who oversees the salary negotiation program. “Legislation alone won’t fix things,” she said. “We need to change the culture to move the needle.”

Like professors making subjective calls on class participation, how employers respond to women asking for more pay also deserves serious attention, Costello said.

She warns students that bosses may discriminate against them, consciously or not, and emphasizes that such behavior isn’t legal. A tip from Page 25 of the guide: “Employers cannot make stereotypical comments about women and their work habits or make assumptions about the work habits of women with children.” It’s just one insight from the American Association of University Women, which designed and funded the Work Smart curriculum, intended to reach 85,000 women over five years.

The program is projected to cost up to $1.5 million, not including marketing and community outreach from the mayor’s office. Its teachers — city employees and local businesswomen — volunteer their time and personal anecdotes about wrangling more vacation days or, say, maternity leave.

The city’s collaboration with the AAUW started with Katharine Lusk, policy adviser to former mayor Menino, whose friend worked on the national nonprofit’s salary negotiation workshops. They wanted to make the training available on a mass scale and measure the results.

Lusk, who authored Boston’s 2013 report on its wage gap, said Menino was inspired by the pay equality advocacy of Evelyn Murphy, the state’s first female Lt. Governor, and research emerging from Harvard and other intellectual hubs across the country.

When Menino, the city’s longest serving mayor, stepped down in 2014 and died that year of cancer, his successor inherited the work and amplified it.

“We know that the wage gap continues to be an issue all across this nation, and it’s time to stop talking about it and start taking action,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced at an entrepreneur’s conference in April.

To that point, Costello’s team at the mayor’s office is asking employers to sign a public declaration of their commitment to end the wage gap and submit anonymized salary data, to be published in a later report.

Such actions, she said, may make more hiring managers aware of any potential biases. Academic literature on the matter is particularly grim.

In a 2005 study, Linda Babcock, an economist at Carnegie Mellon and co-author of “Women Don’t Ask,” famously showed people videos of men and women asking for a raise, using the same words. Among male viewers, the men’s negotiating style won approval, while the women registered as too demanding.

These judgments, Babcock wrote, probably don’t happen on purpose. In some ways, that makes them harder to fend off, which is why some scholars advise business owners to entirely ban salary negotiations.

“People will think, ‘I’m not sexist’ or ‘I’m not racist,’ ” said Hannah Bowles, a public policy professor at Harvard University, “but certain biases can creep into their perceptions.”

She found in her research on gender differences in wage negotiations that simply telling managers that this form of discrimination exists might actually reinforce that such assumptions are acceptable.

“The surprising thing is,” Bowles said, “if you just tell employers the first part of the message, they actually internalize that it’s okay to judge people for breaking gender stereotypes.”

So, she said, it’s important to also say “our company doesn’t do that.”

Boston’s lesson plans don’t encourage women to embrace stereotypical femininity in pay talks. Its success rides on one persistent finding: Women will negotiate as much as men, even harder than men, if they receive social permission to do it.

Research shows when companies remove ambiguity from wage-setting, such as establishing clear pay ranges for workers at every level, disparities between the sexes start to disappear.

Labor economists at the University of Chicago found in a 2012 study when “salary negotiable” appears on a job listing, women negotiate more than men. The opposite was true, however, when the phrase vanished.


Maria Fernandes attended a workshop on negotiation in Boston. When her next performance review comes up, she says, she will ask for a raise. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

She'd asked for a raise, once

On a recent Tuesday, class meets in south Boston’s BCYF Holland Community Center, down the hall from an indoor swimming pool. A Spider Man poster on the wall shouts: Be your own hero.

Maria Fernandes, who works to connect low-income families with affordable housing at a national nonprofit group, learned about the training on Twitter. She saw an open invitation from mayor Marty Walsh.

Fernandes writes her age (33) and race (African American) on a form.

She’d asked for a raise, once. Her former boss at a local hospital declined, blaming a tight budget. Then, she heard, he found a little extra cash for her white, male colleague.

She quickly started looking for another job.

“My mom, an immigrant, always told me to keep my head down and work hard,” Fernandes says, shifting in a red plastic chair. “She said that would be enough. I know now it’s not enough.”

Economists say negotiation accounts for just a sliver of the gap. They also point to the disproportionate number of women in low-paying jobs and the time mothers spend out of the workforce with their children. Discrimination, they note, also plays a role.

For women of color, pay disparities tend to be much wider. Fernandes, whose family hails from Cape Verde, an island off Africa’s west coast, says her heritage adds another layer of complication.

“If I act aggressively,” Fernandes says, “they’ll see me as the Angry Black Woman. And no one wants that in their organization.”

Just before her seventh birthday, her family landed in a cramped apartment in Brockton, Mass. Her mother and sole guardian worked at a shoe factory, warning her five children, “If you ever act up, they’re going to send you away.”

Fernandes, a graduate of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., carried this mentality into the workplace. The fear has influenced the way she speaks (proper English, always) and wears her hair (rarely natural; blown out and shiny — the Michelle Obama look, she calls it).

“Your experience and background would be valuable to any employer,” Costello tells her, referencing a study that shows diversity in race and gender makes companies more profitable.

The other women nod.

When Fernandes started working at the nonprofit group last year, the role came with a slightly higher salary. She’s been documenting achievements, including the company event she organized without a hitch last month in Kentucky.

Her next performance review is days away. She plans to ask for a raise.