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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It doesn't matter if you're a surgeon, a banker, or if you catch fish for a living. If you're a woman in this country, you tend to get paid less for the same work than a man. The feminist movement and decades of new laws have not changed that stubborn fact. Now Boston thinks it has a solution. The city is working to become the first in the country to completely erase the gender wage gap. But will it work? That's our cover story today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW STRONG IS A WOMAN?")

ANN PEEBLES: (Singing) How strong is a woman? How strong is a woman?

RATH: First, from member station WBUR, Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: On average, women across the country are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. In Boston, that discrepancy is not as extreme. A typical woman makes 85 cents for every buck a man makes. Some say that number needs to be adjusted for factors like career choice and motherhood, and then it'll rise to 91 cents. But even then, for Boston's Mayor Tom Menino, nine cents is still nine cents too little.

MAYOR TOM MENINO: Women work as hard; they're smart. Just because they're a woman, they get discriminated against? We're going to end that discrimination in Boston. That's what a pay upgrade is all about.

KHALID: Menino is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of man. He's on his way out, but he's been mayor here for 20 years. So when he says things need to change, people listen.

Boston's Simmons College touts itself as the school with the top MBA program for women. But even the type of students who attend this school say they've felt the stings of unequal pay in the past.

ESTELLE ARCHIBOLD: I have actually experienced a situation where my compensation wasn't comparable to a male counterpart.

KHALID: That's Estelle Archibold.

ARCHIBOLD: Oh, it was at least $20,000 worth of a gap, which is a significant quality of life issue.

KHALID: Archibold was working for a consulting company. She says she asked for more money and got it, but it wasn't easy. Women like Archibold are a driving force in Boston's economy. Bostonians proudly say their city is uniquely capable of eliminating the gender wage gap because of sheer demographics: The city is home to the highest proportion of young, educated women in the country.

CATHY MINEHAN: So when we started to think about closing the wage gap, we thought about it from the beginning as a business initiative.

KHALID: That's Cathy Minehan. She's the dean of Simmons business school and the woman leading the city's initiative. Minehan heads a citywide council that has persuaded more than 40 businesses to sign a pledge to close the wage gap. Some are small, but others are powerhouses in the region, such as Partners HealthCare, the biggest private employer in the city. Companies that sign the compact agree to take three concrete steps. Minehan says the most crucial step is the first one: for companies to open their books and assess their own wage data.

MINEHAN: Sometimes people reject the idea that we have an issue until they actually see the data. And then they say to themselves, huh.

KHALID: Then they'll pick three strategies to improve pay equity. There's a whole laundry list of suggestions recommended by the council, and companies choose what they like. The ideas include things like increasing wage transparency, actively recruiting women to executive-level positions, and offering subsidized childcare. And then finally, businesses agree to share their wage data anonymously every two years so that the city can measure progress. The catch is that none of this is actually required - it's all voluntary. Cathy Minehan claims that's its strength.

MINEHAN: We wanted this to be something that businesses felt strongly was in their best interest.

KHALID: But will this approach be enough to disrupt the old boys' club? Katie Donovan started a company called Equal Pay Negotiations. She says there are systemic hiring practices that discriminate against women.

KATIE DONOVAN: We have to get rid of salary history. It's on every application. All it does is set us up for failure, because if you're a woman, you're going to have a lower salary history than, excuse me, but the white men. They get the premium.

KHALID: A lot of women also say they need to learn to advocate for themselves. The onus to fix this problem can't rest solely with the employer. But whether or not the idea gains traction, just the fact that Boston has made pay equity a priority is enough of a selling point for grad student Meghan Williams.

MEGHAN WILLIAMS: I want to live in a city that values me as much as it values its men.

KHALID: The city is hoping a lot of Boston businesses feel the same way. By the end of the year, it expects to have 50 companies on board. For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid.

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