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Female Freelancers, You Get Screwed in Pay: Here Are 6 Steps to Better Results

There’s no easy answer, but there are things you can do to get paid fairly.

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BY Erik Sherman - 09 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The freelance labor market may not be the greater than a third of all workers that some sources claim. But that still leaves upwards of 11 million. A study that came out recently suggests that women who freelance are getting about a third less for their work than men doing the exact same things.

Variation from top performers to newbies I can see. But the sort of split seen in the study by creative industry workflow software company HoneyBook is nothing but systemic gender discrimination. There are many reasons. Companies will pay less if they think they can get away with it.

A number of factors have historically favored men. They tend to project more confidence -- whether or not there's any reason to, and studies suggest that confidence matters as much as competence in business, no matter how crazy that can be. Men also frequently negotiate better, which gets a boost from with the confidence. They also tend to get favored in business all through their careers. If you go into freelancing after a staff position, that translates into better contacts and higher expectations.

Hard and ugly data

While the HoneyBook study does have a significant limitation, like only looking at its own customers, the data included 200,000 invoices over a single month and a follow-up survey of more than 3,100 respondents. Plus, when you don't have any other comparable information, you make use of what you can get. The results are absolutely terrible.

In general, women make about 81 percent of what men do overall in the economy. In the creative industries that HoneyBook covers, women made 32 percent less on the whole, getting only 68 percent of their male counterparts. Average annual revenue for men according to the company was $45,400; for women, it was $30,700. While 42 percent of male creatives made more than $50,000 a year, only 20 percent of women did. A fifth of men brought in more than $80,000 while only 8 percent of women did.

Some explain away annual figures by claiming that women don't work as many hours on the average as many are spending time taking care of families.

However, that doesn't address the difference in invoiced amounts. When the company looked at specific industries, the average gaps varied widely. For cinematographers, women made $0.88 to a man's dollar. It was $0.76 in event planning and $0.60 for photographers. DJs and musicians took in only $0.46 to the dollar. In no segment did women's average pay exceed that of men. More than 37 percent of women were paid $9 an hour or less. That's minimum wage range, or less, when you've got all the risks and responsibilities of a business owner.

No easy explaining it away

I've worked freelance for a very long time and even taught freelancers on many aspects of the business. I've worked with and taught hundreds of freelancers and known many more. There's no intrinsic gap in experience, quality of work, professional demeanor, or anything else that would justify lower pay in terms of the value clients get. But, still, women are paid less. And for any guy ready to pipe up and claim that women don't take harder assignments, it doesn't hold water in my experience. Yes, some women go after low-paying markets. So do some men. Some women have family obligations. So do men.

If you're a woman who freelances, the study suggests that there are chances you, too, could be getting shorted. There's no immediate and simple way of rectifying the situation, but there are steps you can take over time to improve the situation. I'm combining some things the report suggested with my own observations and experience.

1. Realize that you're getting screwed

One of the telling points of the survey was that 63 percent of respondents to the survey said that they thought men and women were paid equally in their line of work.

There is not a single reason, other than an overly kind nature, to lead anyone to think this. The figures have been clear for a long time in every business endeavor. Of course many female freelancers are making less then men. The sooner you recognize that people are taking advantage of you -- because they damned well know what they pay men with equal experience and credentials -- the sooner you can start making the changes you need.

2. Money may not be the only thing, but it's freaking important

There are many reasons we do the work we've chosen. Could you make more in another field? Could be. I know I could, but there are other satisfactions. However, this important and real blended view of work shouldn't be an excuse to take less.

Maybe you have a spouse whose job provides health insurance. Maybe with two incomes you don't feel the pressure to make more. (The same can be true of men, by the way.) But what happens if you and your significant other split up? Or the spouse dies? Or loses a job or goes out of business? You will need to make more.

More importantly, no matter what type of freelancing you do, why should you get paid less than a man for the same type of work if you have the same qualifications, talent, experience, and work ethic? Why let yourself be treated as a second-class citizen? Having a "nice" client doesn't matter. If they pay you less than they would a man, they don't respect you and aren't so nice after all.

3. Talk money amongst yourselves -- and your male colleagues

We're taught from an early age not to discuss money. Toss that rule out the window. Your colleagues may not always want to cooperate, particularly if they don't know you well, but there are databases that show what freelancers in different industries make.

Trade information with others. Tell other contributors to the same or similar clients what you get paid with the understanding that they will return the courtesy. No one loses on this. Better rates reinforce the value of what you and others do and help perpetuate them. It's a good twist on the unfortunate mechanism of people charging less out of ignorance or fear of conflict and helping to drive overall rates down as a result.

4. Stop telling yourself that you're not worth it

From what I've seen, many women excuse clients because they, and men, have been so thoroughly taught that women are worth less or should make less that they react in kind without thinking. You are spending time in your life to do work you know how to do for someone. This time is a commodity that can never be returned. You're burning part of your life for these people. They should damned well pay well.

That means stop explaining why doing free work is really okay for you. Stop thinking that you have to prove yourself, as you already have. Don't work for people who treat you badly without enough compensation to account for the PIA factor.

5. Learn better ways of charging

Your goal may be to make more, but the way you charge can be a limitation. Hourly pay is a sink because it caps what you can make in a given amount of time. Perversely, the better you get, the more efficiently you may be able to work, and so the less you make in a project. Doing work fast and cheaply should never be a calling card.

Explore other ways of charging. I typically charge by the project, as do many of my colleagues. There are times you'll guess wrong and wind up losing some, but overall you can make much more. Clients tend to like project fees because they can predict the outcomes, and who wants to tally hours?

There's also value pricing, which takes the principle even further. Project pricing can tie you down to something related to a time or production calculation. In value pricing, you set fees according to the value you deliver. If the client really, really needs something that will help drive an important key performance indicator or KPI (Notice the use of corporate slang? Make it work for you when dealing with corporate clients.), then try charging a good chunk of the value.

6. Ask for more and negotiate

When you know what projects are going for and the value you bring to clients, then it's time to set prices accordingly. Successful male and female freelancers I know frequently ask for more than they're offered. The great phrase I heard from others before me is, "I usually get more for that." It's served many of us well. Go out and tell people that they need to up their game. Remember, there's a good chance they're underpaying you. Reverse that trend.

And read everything you can about negotiation. There's always something new to learn. For example, I used to buy into the concept of having the client mention a number first -- and I still like to ask what someone's budget is -- but an expert told me that speaking first is actually an advantage. Rarely do people offer more than you expected at the start if they go first, and by taking the lead, you control the negotiation process, which is beneficial.

In other words, go out and learn how to negotiate well. Read about it -- Jim Camp's "No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home" is deceptively deep. There are many other books and courses. The better you get, the more you will make and the better position you'll be in to work the hours and type of projects you prefer.

The best of luck to all. If you find yourself making more, drop me a note at Twitter and use the hashtag #PayMeMore. Because that's what your clients should do.