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Underpaid as a Female Freelancer? Here’s How to Fix It.

By 22 June 2020December 2nd, 2021Published Works

The gender pay gap extends beyond the confines of traditional full-time work and is as rampant in the freelancing world. A 2017 report by Flexing It, a reputed freelance platform in India, analyzed over 22,000 fee benchmarks for projects across sectors such as marketing, strategy, HR, technology, etc. and found that women freelancers earn less than their male counterparts. Curiously, this gap worsens as experience rises–for professionals with over 16 years of experience women freelancers earned 45 — 50% lower fees on their projects. In fact, it was also found that for the same assignment, women consultants quote lower fees. What’s clear is, even as more and more women move towards self-employment to gain greater control over their work lives, this flexibility comes with its own set of challenges. This gender pay gap, in the light of the global pandemic and the economic recession, has only been made worse. Latest data from the United States reveals that women constituted 55% of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April. In India as well, 39% of women were without work in April 2020 as compared to 29% of men, with self-employed women being affected the most. While the scale of the crisis is unprecedented, this crisis has a predominantly female face prompting experts to refer to this recession as a ‘shecession.’ This recession is likely to magnify existing inequalities (like the division of household responsibilities) and increase the challenges women already face in getting the money they deserve. For those that get into or continue freelancing–either by design or owing to circumstances–getting the fair wage for one’s work is not going to be simple either. For instance, clients might simply ask freelancers like us to do more for less. I have already been requested to do many pro-bono webinars, gratis consulting assignments, and in some cases, clients have just informed me that they can’t pay the usual fee. How can we fix this?

Here are five tips to try and mitigate this situation:

1. Focus on building peer networks: Being a solo operator also means you are often on your own and that can be isolating and at times, plain lonely. Join peer networks (physical and virtual) and build connections to help you get a sense of what others are charging and what employers typically pay for such assignments. While these conversations with peers can sometimes be tricky, it is necessary to comprehend industry benchmarks and where you can peg your rates. LinkedIn and other social media platforms have many industry-specific groups that can help you feel more connected to others in your situation. For example, Binders on Facebook is a great community for content writers and journalists. Joining a co-working space is also helpful in building an informal network of peers and many progressive co-working spaces like the Ministry of New in Mumbai actively encourage members to get to know each other, to network, to share, and to tap into each other’s expertise.

2. Do your research: Salary benchmarks for your experience levels, role, and industry exist in the form of reasonably credible data on sites like Glassdoor and Payscale. Tools like FeeBee by Flexing It are trying to dispel some of the fog by making real benchmarks for freelancer fees by skill and experience available openly and also help provide ammunition to build proposals. FeeBee for instance provides fee benchmarks for over 200 detailed skills such as product management, branding, strategy development, qualitative research from consultants working across industries like professional services, healthcare, FMCG, financial services, logistics amongst others.

3. Sign up with freelance platforms: A new wave of network consulting firms and platforms that connect clients and independent professionals are positively impacting the freelance landscape. Being part of such organized setups results in better access to high-quality projects, a transparent pricing model, and support to negotiate the best offer. For instance, a-connect, ICG, Flexing It, and Noble House offer these services.

4. Look for not just mentors but also sponsors: Even if you lack an organizational structure and official colleagues, think of senior leaders you may have worked with in the past who can guide, counsel, and endorse your work. Sponsors don’t just advise you on how to improve yourself but also help you look for opportunities, promote your work, and open doors for you. Sponsorship is the best kind of endorsement a freelancer can get.

Let me share from my own experience. A decade ago, I had applied for a role at Accenture in consulting and had a great set of meetings with the leadership teams in business and HR. Things did not quite work out for many reasons but I continued to stay in touch with the Head of HR. Many years later, when I quit a job at a financial services firm, she reached out to me (completely out of the blue) about an opportunity to work with her current firm that was going through a massive acquisition. It was perfect timing as I had just embarked on my freelance journey, and a leader I knew helped me land a great gig. Similar to this, nearly all my assignments have come through referrals by an ex-client, an ex-boss, or simply an ex-interviewer! So, stay connected and consciously nurture these relationships. Keep them in the loop and apprised of your career progress.

5. Improve your negotiation skills: Contrary to previous studies, latest research shows that women do ask for promotions or higher pay as much as men but these requests seem to be ignored or denied more often. However, it’s still important to continue asking for what you think you deserve.

Some tips include:

Prepare: Set aside dedicated time to do your research prior to a key negotiation meeting. Ensure you do your homework not just in terms of industry benchmarks but also be armed with your own past successes and how your work translated into measurable outcomes for your past clients. Practice your pitch with a friend or trusted peer, get feedback, and make your case with confidence and flair. Always remember that it’s sometimes okay to say no and walk away from a project or assignment.

Be creative with your solutions: Sometimes when it feels like it’s not going to work out, take a moment to reflect and understand all your options. The best solution may not be initially obvious and may require a little imagination. For instance, a prestigious fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) firm had signed me up for a lucrative project based in Hong Kong. The project required me to travel from my home in Singapore to Hong Kong at least 4 days a week. My first reaction would have been to hesitate, but instead, I pressed on, and requested to speak with the Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific CEO and Head of HR. Our meeting went really well, and I discovered that they were quite reasonable in their ask–we realized that If I could manage my schedule to travel only a couple of days or on alternate weeks, we could still get the work done. I also discovered they had a local Singapore office that the leaders visited regularly so I worked out an arrangement of being in that office for meetings and calls when possible. The point is: Think out of the box and give it a fair trial before saying no.

Bridge that confidence gap: Don’t be afraid to ask for more when you know you deserve it. Think of ways in which you can be more self-confident and self-assured–and perhaps most importantly, tell yourself it’s okay sometimes if you are less than perfect.

*The author is affiliated to a-connect and ICG as a network consultant. She is also an advisor to Flexing It.

This article was first published on HBR Ascend,

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