For over ten years my work has been in the creative realm. I’ve worked as an editor for a travel magazine and a trade publication, as the owner of a visual merchandising agency, and today as a writer and photographer. My work has included workshops, on-site skill development and strategy and training programs, research and writing for publications, and portrait photography. While my professional life has evolved, one thing has remained a struggle. The pay. But it’s not just the wrangling for a wage that values my work that drives me bat shit crazy, it’s the competition. Like me, many creative people compete at one time or another with others who are working for free.
My first business venture was Merchandising Matters, a visual merchandising consultancy that specialized in working with outdoor retailers and brands. When I began this free-lance work, I offered my services to a few businesses at no cost or for trade. My intention was twofold; I wanted to see if what I had planned would work, and to build my portfolio. My intention was to choose a few clients, get things rolling, gain some recognition and then move to paid contracts, and this is what did happen for the most part. But I never stopped fielding the requests for work in exchange for ‘exposure.’
What working for exposure really means is providing your expertise and wisdom to another business that is choosing not to pay you. It’s as simple as that.
If people aren’t willing to part with the cash, they either don’t really value what I do or they’re not ready to do the work. Neither of which bodes well for our working relationship. ~ Janet Murray, “Show Me the Money: Why Women Need to Stop Working For Free“
Women tend to be especially challenged by this in my experience. Many of us don’t value our own contributions, charge far too little, and struggle to be firm and direct in the confidence that we deserve to be paid. I’ve definitely traveled this road myself. Then, a number of years ago, I participated in a 90-day program for women that taught me how to price, market and strategize (link below). I invested in myself at a time when I had minimal income and was in a state of depression.
There are women (and men) who provide services for free because the work they do is a hobby, but when women write, design websites, teach yoga, create art or provide their experience to others for free, they devalue the work of women providing these services for a price, affecting women who count on this work for their livelihood.
I’ve worked as an entrepreneur for over ten years and while bargaining is a reasonable expectation, I do not believe a request for free services is. Unfortunately my experience has put me in the space of free requests, far more often with other female business owners. Women who might be holding a $5 Starbucks latte while they lament their lack of a budget for the skills offered.
Women earn $.80 to every dollar a man earns at best and some studies say this discrepancy results in women working for free for an average of two months or more each year. Women often struggle to ask for a well-earned raise or up the ante on a job offer, and female artists often struggle even more. All artists have had conversations with potential clients who point out they are either lacking in budget or think they can do the work themselves.
As a photographer and writer, sometimes I am approached with dismay that I might charge for anything as if my work being a passion project should be payment enough. I often find myself explaining that the fee I charge for my photography or writing includes not just the final product, but the time spent creating this product, the materials needed, and the education and experience necessary to do that particular work. Running a business also involves overhead: the space needed to create, transportation, supplies, insurance, taxes, etc.
What I’ve learned is we tend to most value what we work towards; what we pay for.
My choice to work for myself has provided countless riches and joy. I love the work I do and the ability to lend my creativity to share beauty with others. This work will not make me rich in dollars, but it does provide richness in experience. I do not feel guilty that I expect to be paid for the work I do. This is my profession. This is not a hobby. I want to work with those that value my work.
Somewhere along the way, the commitment to ending inequality and ensuring equitable wages for work became dissociated from the world of publishing and writing, where writers are seen more as hobbyists or as people who write because they can afford to. ~ Yasmin Nair – Vox
Since I hit 60, I’ve hit the brakes on the free shit and I think you should, too.
Working for free hurts those who depend on the income they receive from that same work to pay their rent, provide groceries and childcare, and who should not have to compete with free.
My work with the Wise Women Project was recently covered in the local paper, the Boulder Daily Camera. Many women reached out asking to participate in the project and I am booked into late May. This thrills me! But a few women balked when they realized I charged for their photoshoot, one even saying, “I felt honored when you said I could participate. But then to find out I had to pay to basically “toot my own horn” in a sense, was disappointing.”
You know, it’s okay to say that paying for this opportunity is out of your reach right now. I respect that. But to respond with disbelief that I charge for my experience and work? Not okay.
Women might have a chance to close the earnings gap when they start to appreciate the value other women bring to the table. Art is more than a passion project, it has the potential to change lives and provide hope and comfort. Think about the work of the artists and creatives who wrote the music we listened to or the books we read this year or whose images provided us with respite. The yoga teachers who helped us care for our inner and outer selves.
Sometimes I think the proverbial ‘buck’ stops with us white ladies. If you aren’t willing to pay a fee for a service, don’t inquire. If you can’t afford the estimate, just say thank you, but that’s out of my reach right now. We must stop searching for free services and value the work of other women. Women who depend upon our support in their efforts to earn a living wage.
There are women, writers, painters, photographers, yoga teachers, life coaches, depending on that money to survive.
The world is so much richer for each and every one of us when we work hand in hand to lift one another up. We all win then.
Prefer to listen to this essay? Visit the WomenWordsWisdom podcast page here.
Resources for help on how and what to charge for your work:
- Short Guide to Pricing your Products, Harvard Business Review,
- Price Your Products as a Consultant
- Women in Community’s 90 Day Program for women only is a valuable resource for setting your business up, learning how to market, price your products and value your time. I gained financial literacy and professional structure–two things I was lacking–in addition to a wealth of knowledge I continue to put to use. Check out one of their free events here.
- Want a laugh? Check these memes out!
This is an excellent article, Robin. I applaud your decision to stop working for free. I quit doing free work (to build my portfolio) many years ago. I discovered that when I didn’t charge for my work, it wasn’t respected and those same clients took advantage of my time. Now that I’m a wise woman, I know that I also didn’t value my own capabilities just yet. It takes time and experience to gain confidence and that wasn’t gonna happen working for free.