It’s common knowledge that women have historically been underpaid compared to male workers performing the same jobs. The good news is that because this trend is/was institutionalized on a large scale and for a long time, it’s easier to do something about it by making large-scale, institutional reforms, like changing state and federal laws and then seeing to it that they’re enforced. I say it’s “easier” that way, but easier than what? Easier than convincing individual women that they need to stop undervaluing their own work (and thereby subverting progress from within).
Hoo boy, I sound like I’m about to open up a can on the oppressed females of the evil patriarchy, but that’s not what I’m about at all. Here, let me explain:
I recently finished some freelance work editing a novel with a strong subtext of female empowerment and women’s rights. The author is old enough to have been around for the women’s lib movement of the 1960s and 70s, and, being somewhat familiar with her politics now, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d organized a local bra burning back in the day. I was excited to be working on such a creative project with such a progressive partner, and I was even more excited because I had priced this job at what it was worth–at what I was worth–and, for the first time ever, I didn’t feel bad about charging fair market value for my expertise.
I’ve historically had a hard time not shortchanging myself when it comes to negotiating freelance fees (in part because I enjoy my work so much, and in part because I’ve been underpaid my entire life and am used to it), and only recently have I been firm and said, “Here is what I’m worth; take it or leave it,” only to realize that–blow me down–my clients have taken it. (And I in turn have felt better about my time spent working for them because of it.)
So I tell this woman what I would charge for her project, and after she performs some noncommittal hemming and hawing about the price, she agrees and we get to work. Fast forward a few weeks and she’s asking me if I’m really going to charge that much. (Yes, I am.) A few weeks later she asks me again what I’m charging and whether I’d be willing to give her a discount because we’re “friends” now. (No, I won’t, and no, we’re not, not really.) Another few weeks go by and she’s trying to get a discount on the next phase of work, and here’s where it gets weird: she basically asks me to lower my price out of solidarity with the message of the project. That’s right, she wanted me to work for below-market pay as a way to promote the empowerment of women.
Say what now?
As I read back over what I’ve written, it sounds like there are sour grapes underfoot, and although it was a difficult project to be a part of based on a variety of factors, the main problem was that I never quite got over the perverse irony of nearly being bullied into undervaluing myself for the sake of equal rights. I just couldn’t believe someone would do that, let alone in this specific context.
I can, however, happily report now that I came out of the deal not only with the full payment I had negotiated at the start but also crystal clarity on my role in promoting respect for women in the workforce. Unless I’m willing to ask for what I’m worth and then defend my value with confidence, I’m not doing anyone any favors–not myself, not other working women, and not anyone who thinks I (we) can be talked down from the rung I (we) have worked to hard to reach in the first place. In this way, the book about empowering women has already done some of that work: it empowered me.