When they hear that I’m a freelance writer, a lot of women confess that they’ve always wanted to strike out on their own. They’re tired of bosses who take their hard work for granted. They aren’t being paid enough and feel like they have to negotiate harder, only to get a smaller salary than their male peers. They hate working traditional hours, especially if they have chronic illnesses, mental-health issues, or young kids. Women’s jobs are objectively “poorer paid, less flexible and more stressful.” They’ve wondered for a long time if going freelance would be a better option.
I only find myself in this position because, exactly four years and one week ago, I was fired. I probably could have found another salaried job, but I’d thought about trying to go freelance for a long time. I’d also spent the past year as the lone woman in management meetings and was burned out. Being my own boss sounded pretty appealing.
Working for yourself is one of the few remaining American economic dreams that has held up postrecession. Entrepreneurs are portrayed as having everything that struggling women in the white-collar workforce lack: autonomy, flexibility, creativity. Set your own hours. Chart your own career path. Stop counting on a boss to raise your salary once a year. Flex the skills your managers have ignored for so long. These things sound appealing to a lot of men, too. But for women, whose salaried jobs come with a particularly tough set of challenges, self-employment is even easier to idealize.
Just one problem, though: Outside the traditional workplace, the gender gap actually widens. Self-employed men, on average, earn about 50 percent more than salaried men. Women, on the other hand, earn slightly less working for themselves. A study in the U.K. found that self-employed women earned 40 percent less than self-employed men. I’m not sure how I stack up against freelancing men in my field. But I do know it took me four years to work up to the salary I was making before I was fired. And like me, many women become self-employed not because they are pursuing a creative tech dream but because freelancing seemed like the best of a set of less-than-ideal options.
“We praise people that are ‘courageous’ enough to quit their 9-to-5 and dive into the deep end of the exciting unknown,” writes graphic designer Janelle Quibuyen. “We idealize and romanticize the idea of being our own boss and being in charge of our own schedule. To take a risk and reap the bountiful benefits. Yet no one talks about the real sustainability or self-sufficiency of this formula when the playing field is never even.”
Women who go freelance are likely to find a lot of their work problems repeated outside the confines of their salaried job — without an HR rep or sympathetic co-workers to lean on. Couldn’t get your boss to give you a raise? Try negotiating several times a month, for each new job you take on. Can’t get your co-workers to take you seriously in a meeting? Try getting a client to approve revisions when they’re only dealing with you. Want more time with your kids? Watch as work bleeds into every corner of your day. Many of the problems of traditional employment are magnified, not reduced, by working for yourself.
Of course, there are some women who thrive while working for themselves. But those of us who are happy, stable, and fairly compensated are essentially the one-percenters of self-employment.
“Generally, there is a struggle to be taken seriously,” says Margot Harrington, who’s been a self-employed designer since she was laid off in 2008 and teaches online business courses for freelancers. “I’ve been brushed off by lawyers or other business-adjacent professionals I’ve tried to hire. They’re all, ‘Aren’t you cute with your little business.’ Excuse moi, you don’t know what kind of money I might have for you. Same goes for negotiating fees. My women clients very rarely push back about my fees, but it happens with more frequency if I’m contacted by a male-driven business.” She does advise other women to go freelance, but with caveats.
“What I see anecdotally is women leave the corporate space, and then they try to figure out what’s next,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of strategic-communications agency Women Online, who quit ten jobs before she was 30 and finally struck out on her own. “A lot try consulting, they try freelancing, and about half say, ‘This isn’t for me, I want to go back to work,’ and the other half say, ‘I’m going to make a business out of this.’”
As of 2012, the year I went freelance, only 35 percent of self-employed workers were women. Today, there’s not great data on the different types of self-employed workers — from the venerated entrepreneurs with a business vision to the self-employed with no employees (like me) to contingent workers in the gig economy who want a full-time salaried job but can’t get one. The Department of Labor has not surveyed self-employed workers in more than ten years, which is pretty astonishing when you consider how much our technology and economy have changed since then.
We live in “an era of disruption and psychological self-employment,” writes journalist Farai Chideya. Which is why, even for women who have no desire to work outside the 9-to-5, it’s important to pay attention to how the inequality of the traditional workplace is replicated outside of it. If most of our careers are now a patchwork of different jobs and even industries, it’s safe to assume that they might contain a freelance patch at some point.
And so a reality check about self-employment is in order. Some of us do find a rhythm and decent financial stability working for ourselves. But the financial risks are real, many women miss the set structure of a 9-to-5, and working solo can get lonely fast. Some women try it and hate it, which shouldn’t be considered a failure. After all, leaving the workplace doesn’t mean leaving behind all of the problems associated with it.