Freelancing Isn’t Feminist—It’s Badly Negotiated Wage Labor for $5 an Hour

Yves here. Holey moley. One of the good things about working for fancy firms early in my professional life was I saw how much they charged, even when the work was often pedestrian or even dubious. So I was never shy about setting a healthy price for my time. But regardless, how could anyone bid under the minimum wage? The only time I could see that making any kind of sense would be if you were breaking into a new area and would have reason to expect the client would give you a very valuable reference, or better yet, referrals, if they liked what you did. But my experience has always been that clients who go cheap never appreciate the work done for them.

By Sophie Linden, an editorial assistant at AlterNet’s office in Berkeley, CA. Originally published at Alternet

Surround yourself with positivity, exploit all marketing outlets, choose a specialized skill—this is the repetitive wisdom passed on to every budding creative entrepreneur. Less often do we hear advice like, “increase the price of an invoice,” or “make it non-negotiable,” especially as it relates to the gendered wages within self-employment.

The freelance market is arguably trending across industries, with some figureheads going so far as to say “freelance is feminist,” mainly because women make up a slight majority. Unfortunately, before feminists get too heady on the issue, we need to look at whether the freelance market is any more “freeing” to the women in it, or if it is liberating any of its entrepreneurial workforce. Right now, it’s just another deregulated economy in which workers are underpaid and largely invisible.

A recent study published by HoneyBook gives some visibility to the subject, showing that women in the “creative economy” are actually paid significantly less than their male counterparts, sometimes taking in an average of $5 an hour.

There are many reasons for concern about this wage discrepancy. Not only because HoneyBook found that 63% of men and women believed they were earning equal pay, but also because of the growing workforce within the world of freelance, where there are already 57.3 million freelancers in the U.S.

Industry data from UpWork and the Freelance Labor Union suggests that freelancers will be the majority by 2027, growing three times faster than the U.S. workforce overall, and contributing over $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy annually. While scenes of cramped coffee shops may be an indicator of this burgeoning workforce, these numbers are still astounding. Without sites like UpWork and HoneyBook, they would also be hard to track.

HoneyBook is the self-employed’s business management tool, hosting clients similar to those in the aforementioned study. Labeled under the guise of “creative entrepreneurs,” they are working professionals navigating gigs in industries like photography, graphic design and writing. With its niche data, the site analyzed over 200,000 client invoices from October 2016-2017 to look at wage discrepancy, finding that on average women made 32% less than their male competitors. This gap is even larger than the national average, where women earn 24% less than men nationally, 76 cents to the dollar. Troubling news for the largest, opportunist workforce around: that is, women in freelance.

In 2015, women made up 53% of the freelance market. This slight dominance encouraged Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelance Labor Union, to preemptively call freelancing ”feminist.” Horowitz argued that the lifestyle of a freelancer was more palatable to the roles women desired, whether that was co-careers or gendered domestic labor. She also argued that freelance work allowed women to avoid male privilege in the workplace, notably the boys club at board meetings.

While some of Horowitz’s arguments hold value, we can clearly see how freelance work is still an unequal field, at least if pay is any measure of equality among genders. Women who do enter the field already consider themselves to have less bargaining power. Meanwhile, the majority of invoices in HoneyBook’s study quoted a non-negotiable price, meaning women are more likely to charge less for the job. Clearly, the reasons for the gender pay gap are embedded and multi-layered. Nevertheless, the study shows that freelance is not entirely the liberated, equal rights, equal pay landscape Horowitz claims it to be.

Asked why they enter the market, freelancers often cite the flexibility of the work in a number of terms: the ability to be their own boss, as well as the ability to choose their projects and work location. In essence, men and women draw upon idealistic dreams of escaping workplace power-dynamics to find economic independence in their pajamas — a depiction that has been repeatedly critiqued. Freelancers still enter a labor force that has few congressional protections and is arguably as successful as the social networks you were economically born into. Essentially it is prey to the same laissez-faire ideals that have manipulated structural inequity across generations of workers in the U.S. It just imagines itself differently—now under the guise of “creative” entrepreneurship.

HoneyBook’s research is just one insight into wage gaps. As a largely deregulated economy with unparalleled growth, it is important to make visible the economic and social divides embedded in the independent workforce. We can start by debunking the claim that freelancing is a more equitable field to work in, and with it, the idea that any economy is without prejudice.

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28 comments

  1. ambrit

    I would also argue that so called ‘regular’ employment is trending towards a “freelance” structure. Job tenures are supposedly shrinking and often going away completely. Now, that salaryman window tribe dweller is often outside of that window, washing it on a piecework basis, with no safety line.
    The underlying rationale for the rise of the ‘freelance’ work structure is to first crapify the freelance ‘experience,’ with lower wages a must, and then, second, extend the ‘neo-crapified’ work rules into the previously “safe” ‘regular’ work world.
    The only rational response to managements’ claim that “we can get someone to replace you if you do not agree to our demands,” is to simply walk away from the “golden opportunity.” Sooner or later, all exploitative systems fall apart due to their own internal contradictions. It can be painful, but: No pain (economic micro-dislocation,) no gain (guillotines in Town Square.)
    On the feminism front, and please remember that this is an older man writing, I would find any situation where the individual allows outside forces to define said individuals self definition, as the opposite of “liberating.” Except in rare cases, what else is ‘freelancing’ but a “race to the bottom?” If one is to accept the ‘freelancing’ ethos as presently presented, one may as well embrace the ‘contemplative life’ and accept fasting and privation as a path to communion with the godhead.

    1. Crazy Horse

      Freelancers driving the price of their labor down to $5 per hour because they have to compete against all the other people who can’t find steady work is not a feminist issue– its a class issue. And that is no less true if males make $2 more per hour because of sexual discrimination. The real enemy is the billionaire who owns the corporation, the politicians, and the enforcers that grind workers down into virtual servitude. There is always choice. There are always drugs to be transported and sold, money to be laundered, or accounting fraud to be fabricated. There is always choice even if the consequences are severe. It’s long been known that the fastest (and only) way for a woman to become a movie star is on her back. When a fat pig movie director pushes you down on the “casting couch” there has always been the choice to reach for the Mace or the revolver in the purse. Submitting is prostitution, choice is rejecting greed for riches and fame and joining with others to throw the boot off your neck.

  2. Arizona Slim

    There is no organization called the Freelance Labor Union. Horowitz’s organization is called the Freelancers Union and it is little more than a buyers club. It has yet to call a strike or organize a picket line. Nor does it call out the companies that exploit freelancers.

  3. Robert Murphy

    $583,283.25 – using the annuity formula from Stewart’s 4th edition precalc book (it is surely the same formula in all his books …) & taking that 5 bucks an hour TIMES 2080 hours of pay in a year (40*52) = amount to save every year, for 30 years, at 4% interest.
    Now, realistically, whoever underpaid you just bought a few more trinkets for today’s mansion, jet, yacht or mistress … but … you could have saved that money!

    rmm.

  4. agkaiser

    When they turn 50, if they survive that long, they’ll be replaced by younger cheaper labor. Nothing really changes, except the words we use to describe our sad condition and the lower and lower age at which we’re discarded.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Which is why I summarize fifty-plus freelancing this way: Too old to get a job and too young and broke to retire.

      1. Octopii

        That’s why I broke down and got a job at 46… it became obvious where things were going. Didn’t want to be stuck after 50 like some others I know.

  5. Livius Drusus

    Freelancing is much like entrepreneurship in that it has been way oversold to the public. Most people don’t do well either as freelancers or as entrepreneurs and would likely be better off as normal employees. The emphasis on “alternative” work arrangements has taken public attention away from improving the lot of traditional employees and contributes to the devaluation of ordinary workers by suggesting that they are lazy or stupid because they didn’t become freelancers or gigsters or entrepreneurs of some sort.

    Many young people seem to have fallen into the trap of putting too much emphasis on work flexibility over a steady paycheck. These kinds of alternative work arrangements might be fun and cool when you are in your 20s but not so much after 30 and especially if you want to start a family and need a steady and reliable source of income.

  6. DJG

    I was a free lance in publishing for about twenty-five years. The tell here is the mention of pajamas: Are we still in the world of people who want to work in their pajamas? One thing I learned right away is that you have to get up each morning, dress like an adult, schedule the number of billable hours that you want to charge for, and send in invoices regularly. The successful free lances, male and female, did so. The people who started work at three in the afternoon, after cocoa with marshmallows all day, didn’t succeed.

    I suspect that hourly charges among free lances are falling: That is part of our friend “right to work,” which keeps wages down. It is also part of the massive amount of outsourcing going on. In publishing, responsibilities that always were kept in house and should remain in house are being outsourced.

    I’ll also note that one of the reasons that I became a free lance, besides knowing what I could charge for my work, is that many offices are toxic environments socially and politically. There is a lot of stress on conformity. There is no concern for original thinking. Inventing the wheel is considered original.

    And as someone who has worked in publishing for many years and knows many talented and powerful women in publishing, I left my last job shortly after the head of the division introduced the new editor in chief for books as a woman. That’s right. The first words: M.K. is a woman.

    M.K. turned out to be a nonentity who exploited the organization for personal ends. She was a great absentee manager! And I no longer had a desire to be around the endless re-runs of resentments of fellow employees.

    1. Arizona Slim

      DJG, you’re on to something.

      I can remember meeting freelancers in the 1980s and 1990s. The good ones were GOOD. As in, they had waiting lists — you had to book them a couple of months in advance. And they charged accordingly.

      These days, that seldom happens. Why? Because there are too many people who can’t find jobs, or they only get hired for part-time work, and they have to fill the rest of their time. Such trends do not make for increasing hourly rates.

      1. DJG

        Arizona Slim: My dance card was always filled. But as you mention above, after age 50, I kept thinking, Am I a daring American entrepreneur and sole proprietor, or am I just terminally unemployed (and unemployable)?

    2. jgordon

      One thing that struck me immediately about the article as well was that no one bothered mentioning the general personality difference between men and women that often lead to women making less money across the board: the average women tends to be much more agreeable (as a big 5 personality trait–feel free to google it) than men, and agreeableness is always a predictor for lower wages where pay is negotiable.

      Also, like you I have already seen multiple examples of companies that hire unqualified women and minorities to meet diversity quotas. It’s a terrible hole we’ve gotten ourselves into that only harms everyone in the end.

      By the way, the wage pay gap and glass ceiling myths have been debunked multiple times already. I read through the articles and sources listed above about the topic and for some strange, strange reason none of these mentioned that women usually decide to disengage from the workforce and start families sometime around their late 20s. That should definitely be controlled for whenever the wage gap myth is studied, but oddly enough never is.

  7. Ned

    OK, what’s to stop women from charging higher rates? Lower self esteem? Are their lower wages for each hour worked? Or, do they work fewer hours?

    “they are working professionals navigating gigs in industries like photography, graphic design and writing….” Clean, no lifting, paid to create gigs where you don’t get your hands dirty, or put your body in perilous exhausting situations.

    If women want to earn money, learn to be a plumber. Yes, you will get a face full of shit occasionally, will bleed, get burned and will earn $75 an hour, often in cash.

    There’s a shortage of linepersons to install power lines. Up on that lift bucket, 80 feet in the air, leaning out and ratcheting in 10,000 volt live wires covered with a rubber shock cloth, you can make astounding amounts of money. Why aren’t more women up there? Companies go out of their way to hire women.

    No mention of the free labor slave pit called “internships.” How many of us have gone through that
    voluntary servitude?

    1. Arizona Slim

      I have training in the trades and have worked as a bike mechanic. On the positive side, there’s a pride of workmanship that you do not get from office work or from freelancing while sitting at a computer. And there’s the camaraderie. I never experienced anything like it — except in that hot, greasy, dirty bike shop.

      On the negative side, you can get too old and broken down to do the work. OTOH, you can be a sit-down freelancer until you die.

    2. FluffytheObeseCat

      What stops women from negotiating male-equivalent wages varies. Timidity and poor negotiating skills is part of it. As Yves said above, it helps immensely to have been exposed to the billing practices of real winners in this game. And they are disproportionately men, specifically, men who operate like real machers.

      The biggest factor is IMO, information deficit. Professional class people throughout many industries are idiots when it comes to freely discussing remuneration with their fellow wage slaves. Everyone acts as though their compensation package were as private and faintly dirty as….. another package.

      It’s idiotic. The vast majority of us would be better off if we blurted it out over lunch ever few months. And walking away a few tifmes is key. It’s good for you. Likewise, if you do need to take a poorly paid gig some times, treat it as slightly less than full time. Keep lining up others. Create the bare minimum of deliverables as swiftly as you can, and get out. Those who underpay you do not deserve your maximum effort, and they’re invariably shitty references, so do not anguish over doing only the job they’ve paid for.

      Just don’t stiff or cheat anyone lower down the line if you take an underpaid gig. I watched a guy do that recently on a contract job that put him into contact with me, an under-remunerated grad student. He didn’t cheat me, he cheated the agency I worked for of some small use fee. Right in front of me. His consulting firm is not one I’ll be looking to work for any time soon.

      Also, always write a late charge fee in your contract. 120 day “billing cycles” are abusive garbage in the age of computers. After thirty days, the price goes up.

      Women who let themselves get stiffed all the time are a real danger to the interests of the guys in their line of work, not just themselves. I wish more guys could see that.

      1. DJG

        Fluffy: Yes. Know rates, and have a group of friendly free lances who will tell you what they are being offered these days. And what hourly they will turn down.

        Firing clients is a necessity. I learned that from a sole proprietor who I worked for in a small typesetting / editorial / graphic design shop. The customer isn’t always right. There are psychic benefits to firing a bad customer. And word sort-a gets around that there are people who / companies that you refuse to take work from.

    3. cnchal

      . . . Why aren’t more women up there?

      Pajamas?

      I went through an apprenticeship. It was the only time I was trapped by an employer.

    4. jgordon

      First, women are driven to avoid hazardous environments. There are certainly exceptions as I personally know a woman stevedore, but in almost all cases where women work you are likely to find them in care or customer service professions, or in safe, air conditioned office environments which in the main pay less than the dangerous, dirty jobs that draw men. You shouldn’t fault women for this since it is in the nature of woman to seek safety and security, and overall they are much less physically able than men. However this is important to keep in mind when evaluating certain variations of the wage pay gap myth. This is by the way an example of how feminist ideologue misinformation hurts women.

      Also as I have mentioned previously there are marked and measurable personality diferrences between men and women that prevents women for negotiating for pay as effectively as men. Higher tendencies towards agreeableness and neuroticism in women certainly explains at least in part why they earn less for the same work in freelance environments. For more information check out sex differences between men and women in the big five; this is a tremendously well researched subject.

      Anyway in short, don’t hold anything against women for being who they are. They are just different from us and we have to accept that with equanimity.

    5. Yves Smith Post author

      Stop this bullshit. What about discrimination don’t you understand?

      Women in the sciences (one of your approved male professions) have to have 2.5X as many articles published in peer-reviewed journals as men to get tenure. Women MDs (another male dominated profession) get 20% less than men on average, within the various specialities.

      1. Vullsain

        Here is some more so called bullshit. I have worked in health care for close to 40 years and have witnessed innumerable male physicians marry female nurses, therapists or technicians who then quit work or cut back hours to have and raise children or because they could. I have seen male physicians not marry at all and focus on their career. I have witnessed female physicians cut back their hours to raise children or to lead a more balanced life. With one exception I have never witnessed a female physician marry someone who made less money than she did or support a husband while he worked part time or stayed at home. I may not write books on economics or host an economic blog but it is self evident that the gap in various medical specialties is for the most part because of choices women make, choices that are culturally frowned upon for men. BTW the exception I referred to is my brother who has a Masters in physics and who has supported his wife in her becoming a physician. He sacrificed advancing his education and has had to quit positions with opportunity in supporting and allowing her to pursue her goal, he stayed home and raised two kids. And here is a kicker, has endured some disparaging comments by her father regarding his pay scale. I guess this might be the double standard and type of discrimination we don’t understand.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          What you wrote is bullshit. And that’s before you get to “the plural of anecdote is not data.”

          A rigorous study found that women MDs are paid on average 20% less than men in the same speciality. This is apples to apples. Yet you deny clear cut, unambiguous data about discrimination against women in medicine. I must note there is a lot of hostility toward women evident in your comment.

          People quitting or cutting back their hours does not reduce their wage level. If someone has left a profession, they are no longer included in the wage stats. Part time workers often make more per hour than full time employee equivalents due to the fact that they are effectively getting a benefit cut (like no sick days). So full time going to part time or part time going to fewer hours does not help your case and may work against it.

          Funny, I hardly know any women doctors, yet the one I know married someone who made less than she did (although he later went into finance and had some years where he made quite a lot of money). And she has continued to work full time while he later went into an academic role where she was again making more than he was and he was doing at least half, maybe more, of the child-care duties. I know a woman MD in Oz who has built a very profitable skin care business and operates out of four offices and makes more than her husband.

          1. Vullsain

            I would like to see the source for your apples to apples study. Don’t try to tell me that physicians who build a large practice by working extreme hours and that result in an unbalanced lifestyle are proof of discrimination against women who take a more balanced approach to their career and in the process do not have as large of a practice. The denial that women as a cultural norm seek men who earn more than they do or at least as much has been confirmed by a number of studies or to anyone who can open their eyes, despite what your anecdotes suggest.

  8. D

    I suspect it’s utter mythology that women do not attempt to attain far better paying manual labor jobs than they do.

    Speaking of high voltage wires, I know a woman who was in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union (Brotherhood says it all!). She worked on large commercial construction, such as the NUMI Plant (now Tesla). While she endured it through to her retirement she had a horridly abusive (and life threatening on one occasion) go of it. Sexual harassment (made worse by the fact that she had an hourglass figure), an actual physical threat, knife included, while being locked in a room with someone she had already reported as having harassed her, but was forced to work with him anyway; utter resentment of women on the job; and stunning racism (the black males in that Brotherhood, did not fare much better as to the racism) in the tolerant Bay Area.

    As to plumbing, the bay area has current and frequent plumbing school ads on TV which feature no women at all, and a real bro-bro atmosphere which all women who’ve been sexually harassed are familiar with. At one point in my life, despite having a licensed profession, I offered to apprentice to a plumber who just laughed at me (at the time, I was able to do twenty chin-ups).

    And, my experience (pre putting myself through college to attain a livable wage), trying to get a job doing manual labor that actually paid a decent wage was utterly unsuccessful. I did have a nursery job, and a very brief job at a thoroughbred stable (the owner was a horrid human being so I quit). At both of those jobs, the only males were illegal immigrants from Mexico, and the wages in both jobs were under regular minimum wage ag wages.

    Further, to imply that ‘sit’ down jobs don’t have their fair share of health damage, is like saying that emotional abuse does not exist, and is not deadly when one’s spirit is killed in a situation where the other wields far more economic and social power.

    Many, unfortunately too many woman included, still feel that a white or non-black male will do a better job, no matter what that job is. For instance (and I don’t know what it’s like now) I recollect while waitressing that only males were offered high end, far better tipping, jobs in pricier restaurants. At the time, I never saw a female waitress in a high end restaurant.

  9. D

    Oh my, I was angered and depressed after reading many of the comments yesterday – by predominately males – who appeared to be among the first to show up to discuss away discrimination against females. I can only imagine if female commenters predominated and refuted on a post regarding male concerns (as if they would, I’ve not seen it), but what to say, it actually got worse.

    Perhaps it’s just my innate female neuroticism. I’m guessing a lot of women didn’t even bother commenting when they saw the first 13 comments; not because they’re timid, but because they learn to reserve their energy by not engaging with those who refuse to acknowledge their historic, and current, economic circumstances unless there might be a productive outcome.

    Mind boggling, do I sense bitterness here, a tad of neuroticism even:

    Anyway in short, don’t hold anything against women for being who they are. They are just different from us and we have to accept that with equanimity.

    1. ambrit

      “Discuss away discrimination against females.” I suspect that most of the males who commented here were focusing on the dystopia that is the ‘gig’ economy, and not the gender gap. In that respect, the commentariat was engaging in an exercise in solidarity.
      To some extent, the disparities in wages between men and women are a function of the culture. Cultures are taught, so, education is the key. Yves comment at the top of the piece about pricing of services holds in general, but, and this is a big but, it depends on the demand for the service being offered. Individually, a lone actor has little power in any widely spread labour skills supply. Hence, unions. “Lysistrata” could be viewed as a womens’ union going on strike. This brings up the idea that women of “progressive” or truly ‘feminist’ leanings should not be shy, and speak up, shout out when needed, just to let the generality of the human population know that there are competing viewpoints. The “Official” point of view will win every time if not challenged.
      Regarding ‘freelancing,’ the basic methodology of wage suppression applies irrespective of gender. The gender gap is a separate issue.

  10. D

    ambrit,

    You actually have nothing whatsoever to say about jgordan‘s horrid commentary, for one thing, ambrit, yet you have quite a bit to say about mine?

    The post was about discrimination against females, yet the males, as usual, dominated and you can’t even acknowledge that, and how horrid it is?

    1. ambrit

      D;
      I am remiss in returning to this thread. Apologies.
      The male female disparities are quite the mystery to many men, myself included.
      The professions have been opened up to the generality of the female population only recently, historically speaking. Women did not get full sufferage in England until 1928, less than a hundred years ago. Various other ‘professions’ were similarly remiss in expanding the rights of women. So, how long does it take for a culture to make a serious and radical shift? I admit ignorance in this matter.
      Several years ago, at our hostesses urging, I took the Harvard Personality test. I did not turn out to be anywhere as ‘virtuous’ as I had imagined. Most of the men who commented in this thread probably fell within the same psychological ‘region’ as myself. So, guilty as charged. Which means, roughly, don’t be shy about speaking your mind to this group. The people here have a high level of respect for reasoned argument. Your voice will not go unnoticed.
      On jgordon, well, he is what he is. He does represent a large part of the male community, if my experiences out in “the world” are any guide. I struggle with ingrained male chauvinism a lot, as in whenever I have it bought to my attention. That is, I think, the point I’m trying to make here. How can any person deal with a character flaw if others are shy about pointing said flaw out? Disengaging works only when there is a neutral space to move over into. In society, unless one were to take up Holy Orders and withdraw from the world, change and conflict are guaranteed.
      Finally, and I must admit to trepidation in asking this; are there good figures for the gender percentages of the readers of this blog? Do the gender proportions exhibited in the commenteriat mirror the readership?
      I’m a sixty something male with a general background in plumbing and construction. I’ve met female plumbers, electricians, surveyors, vendors, inspectors and architechts.
      Be of good cheer.

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