Freelancing for Women Comes with Some Benefits, But Also Tricks

Freelancing, sometimes described as a feminist act, could help women break out of the traditional grind and avoid some typical workplace challenges. Freelancers can, theoretically, set their own schedules, projects and office locations, leading to greater flexibility. 

One recent study commissioned by the Freelancers Union backs the idea that women have a hold on the market. Women made up 53% of the full-time freelance marketplace - estimated to top 50 million Americans - in the 2014 analysis.

But the independent work-life has its own set of caveats, as freelancers generally have to continuously navigate tricky situations, like negotiating rates with various clients, not just with one boss, once a year, at a full-time job.

There are some signs that women are getting into freelance for the "predictable, obvious" reasons, says Laura Shin, a full-time freelance journalist who writes regularly for Forbes about Bitcoin and other digital currencies. According to this study, women were more likely than men to freelance because of a need to pick up extra money, scheduling flexibility and to gain independence from office dynamics -- factors that do not necessarily offer the template for a fair-wage revolution.

Indeed, gender wage gaps among self-employed workers have been cited in studies in both the United Kingdom and Canada in recent years. In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported a rise in self-employed women from 1992 to 2012. While female business owners have lower mean earnings when compared with other worker groups, the gender wage gap has shrunk during this time period.

Overall, in the U.S., full-time female workers earn, on average, 79 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Margot Harrington, the owner of the graphic design studio Pitch Design Union in Chicago, has taught classes on contracts and best practices for freelancers. She says that female students approach her more often than men, seeking advice on how to handle payment.

"There are a lot of confidence issues, for sure, related to the clients approaching freelancers and they don't know what to say," Harrington said. "It's about knowing how to put down boundaries and be firm and to help them feel empowered and to be able to have certain conversations."

Harrington, who has grown her own client base over the course of the last eight years, now relies on a regular client roster for her income, in addition to some teaching work on the side. She suggests that freelancers or independent contractors try to avoid one loaded question: What's your rate?

"If someone puts me on the spot for my rate and it is an exploratory call I say, 'Because every project has a different scope there is no set price point for these things and when you would need their deliverables by, among other things, would affect the budget,'" Harrington said. "The rate is not something I could whip out without a serious conversation."

If pressured for a specific number, Harrington will deliver a large range as a way to gauge the potential client's response. This could also help show if the client is "someone who respects my skills and wants to work with me," she explained. 

Harrington also suggests using online tools and apps, like invoice reminders, which allow a freelancer to bypass sending emails reminding a client about payment.

Shin, who previously covered personal finance as a freelance reporter, also serves as one of the administrators of a closed Facebook group for women freelance journalists. The question of rates for projects or individual article is common in the online forums she frequents.

"The main thing is people don't know what they are worth," Shin explained. "Some people will write an article for $50 and some people will write an article for $500 or more. It's not really what the fee should be, but really writers need to figure out what you are worth."

In recent years, other spaces and networks geared towards women freelancers have cropped up across the U.S. and internationally. There's the Hera Club, a workspace for women in California and Washington, D.C., conferences for "creative women" like the new Make Nice, which took place in Australia this June. Harrington regularly negotiations and receives support in "Pay Up," a Slack messaging group that has more than 2,000 women. 

Kristin Kelley, a 25-year-old who has been freelancing for the past nearly two years as a journalist, relies on the closed Facebook freelancers group, known as "Binders." She says her involvement in the group has given her several thousand mentors in the male dominated field of journalism. Women have made up a nearly stagnant 36% of newspaper newsrooms from 1999 to 2013, according to the American Society of News Editors, despite high graduation rates from journalism school. 

It comes down to how Shin's annual income can average out hourly, she says. She recognizes that some projects will bring in more money than others. She will take on some assignments or long-term work with the understanding that they are good for career growth, though not necessarily profitable in the immediate future. Shin recommends asking clients about their budget before establishing a set rate.

Freelancing has been a long-time dream for Shin, who is tackling the independent route now for the second time, after her first stint led to some financial struggles. Now, three-and-a-half years after she re-launched her freelancing career, Shin has a steady relationship with a few clients, plus a book project in the works. She does not need to negotiate new deals too often anymore. 

"Like anything in life, any woman freelancer has different reasons for wanting to do it," she said. "It could be they are having families and the way our societies are structured a full-time job makes it difficult to do that. For me, personally, I have found that it has allowed me to show off my leadership abilities. People judge me based on my work and not on the fact that I am so small or look younger than I am. I've really gained that from this work."

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