Multi-party computation helps address Boston’s male-female pay gap

Led by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston is preparing to analyze the wages of male and female employees at more than 60 local companies — a step officials say is the first attempt in the country by a major city to tackle the gender wage gap by examining and releasing actual salary information.

“We’re not trying to punish companies, we’re trying to have people understand where they’re at,” said Megan Costello, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement.

So how do you persuade a major corporation to unveil sensitive salary information that their competitors would love to get their hands on? By keeping it anonymous. Even when the aggregate salary information is made public, the companies attached to specific data will not be revealed.

But companies’ payrolls are proprietary, because their disclosure could be a boon to competitors, a black eye for the firms, and ammo for disgruntled employees who could sue over pay inequities. Even if firms could trust a third party that swore secrecy to look at their numbers and calculate industry averages, hackers might breach that party’s online security and steal these precious informational nuggets.

“So this project hit a hurdle,” Azer Bestavros said. “It wasn’t going to happen unless there was a way to do it, and there didn’t seem to be a way.”

Enter Bestavros, who proposed using multiparty computation to allow the city to calculate those industry pay averages, by gender, without any daylight shining on an individual company’s proprietary information. BU students and a Hariri colleague developed software to perform the algorithm.

“Society thinks that things cannot be done when they can,” Bestavros says. “It’s not magic. It’s a simple algorithm.…We can compute things that would seem impossible to compute, given the constraints.”

Read more at the Boston Globe and BU Today.


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