$20,000.00. It is an amount that I will never forget and it is the amount that cemented my desire to find fair and equitable ways to share my gifts with others. I was a new hire at an institution and a casual lunch conversation revealed that one of my male colleagues was making exactly $20,000 more than I was. He had fewer years of teaching experience than I did and our education levels were drastically different. It was not the first, nor the last time, that I would encounter unequal pay for equal, or more, work.
If you are aware of the Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick story then you’re probably familiar with the rags to riches motif that has captured readers’ imaginations for over a century. At the core of that story is the idea that regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic class, we all have the same opportunities to achieve our professional and personal goals. Interestingly, even when I worked at the most progressive of institutions, I never experienced that type of parity.
In fact, at various points in my life, typically after I applied for a position, I could always tell when potential employers were checking me out. My email would sprout up with numerous reminders that, “Tyra, people are looking at your Linkedin profile.”
Here we go again. Well if they didn’t know that I was Black and a woman before, then they knew now. Then the waiting game ensued. Would I be given a fair chance? Would being of a childbearing age affect my chances? Would my salary be based on my ability? My degrees? Or my double minority status?
On the surface, this may seem to be over the top or hinged on paranoia, but the reality of not being compensated or treated fairly is real. I often hear my friends, many of whom have climbed the proverbial corporate and academic ladders, complain about being mistreated, overworked, and frustrated by some of their experiences with overt and blatant sexism.
I don’t claim that my life as a freelancer is perfect, but it has given me a glimpse of what it feels like to be in a space where my productivity and my creativity are not controlled or dominated by someone else. Being a female freelancer, in many ways, is the most liberating thing that I have ever done and here’s why:
Many women, by default or by choice, are caregivers. We find ourselves being the CEOs of other people’s lives. This often requires learning how to integrate our needs with the needs of others. Whether it is shuffling children to and from co-curricular activities or supporting elderly parents, it is difficult for many women to carve out time for themselves.
Setting one’s own hours, project schedules and the duration of projects allows female freelancers to have more work options that can mesh seamlessly with personal responsibilities, however defined. Freelancers often determine if a job or project is the “right fit”. If it is not, you are not obligated to do it, especially if it will lead to a work and life imbalance.
Yes, it is 2016 and there are still those who question the value or quality of a woman’s work. Because many freelancers either set their own prices and fees, or a price is already established, there is very little volleying back and forth.
A good article or blog, whether written by a male author or a female author, can still fetch the same rate of compensation. Competitive pricing and quality work are privileged and not someone’s gender or race. I have rarely, if ever, wondered if someone was getting paid more simply because he was born a male.
Many of us confuse the idea of a democracy with that of a meritocracy. Meritocracy is built on the idea that we are rewarded based upon our achievement, or the merit of our work, including our intellect. Acquiring new projects, building clientele and receiving referrals is often based upon the quality of a freelancer’s work.
Depending on what you do, you may never meet or even see your clients. E-commerce has made freelancing fertile ground for a meritocracy where one’s zip code, last name, or gender doesn’t translate into grounds for preferential treatment or, conversely, discrimination.
Of course, freelancing is not utopic; however, it is a space where one’s creativity, intellect, skill sets, and gifts seem to be respected for their intrinsic and extrinsic value.
For women in particular, freelancing may give you a taste of what the traditional workspace has not. It is for this reason that I strongly encourage women to try it—at least once this lifetime.