By Rachel Hills
I knew I needed to do something radical about my approach to money when I screwed up three negotiations in the space of a week.
The first was when a client I had been working with for a few weeks (but who hadn’t yet signed a contract) came back to me and told me she couldn’t afford the amount we had originally agreed and would need to cut my fee by half. The second was when I lowballed another client by quoting based on what a friend whose judgment I trusted thought they could afford rather than the time it would take me to do the work, leaving me kicking myself when I realized what my hourly rate would be. (Clue: significantly less than I would like.)
The third - and the one which caused me the most embarrassment - was when I reached out to a woman I admired about co-hosting an event for an organization doing work we were both passionate about. She wrote back asking if I would be charging for tickets. I panicked, not wanting her to think I was exploiting her but wanting to earn something for the labor involved in running the event, and quoted her a nominal ticket price. She turned me down not because my price was too high but because it was too low - she was too stretched at the moment to do anything pro-bono.
“this pattern of undercharging is tied to a bunch of more universal issues at the intersection of gender, self-employment, and purpose-driven work”
My cheeks burned with my own smallness, and I fought the urge to write back and explain to her that it had all been a big misunderstanding. I was happy to charge more! I had only quoted such a low price because I hadn’t wanted her to think I was greedy! But I had enough sense to know that email would only make me look even worse.
I tend to blame this pattern of undervaluing and undercharging for my time and expertise on five years working as a full-time freelance journalist at a time when the industry - and associated rates - were in freefall.
But it’s also tied to a bunch of more universal issues at the intersection of gender, self-employment, and purpose-driven work.
Most advice on women and money is targeted at women in salaried jobs. This makes sense - there are more of them, for one - and one of the reasons women collectively make less money than men do is because we are less likely to negotiate (and our negotiations are received differently).
But the challenges women in salaried jobs face when it comes pay and negotiation are exacerbated for women who are self-employed, who must continually negotiate our worth. Price yourself too low, and you end up feeling resentful, exploited, and powerless. Price too high, and your risk getting no customers at all. There can also be a different calculus applied to freelancer or project-based payments, on both ends of the transaction: what looks like a good rate in a full-time job can result in poverty wages for a self-employed person or small business owner.
For women doing purpose-driven work, there are additional complications. Often, our desire to make whatever it is we care about a reality can outstrip our desire to be paid fairly for our work. I’ve lost count of the number of women I’ve worked with who have calculated their projects budgets based on the minimum amount required to get them off the ground - which usually results in underestimating labor costs and cashing in on goodwill instead. Sometimes, this results in underpaying the people we work with. Even more often, it involves drastically underpaying ourselves.
There’s also an underlying stigma that seeking payment for work we care about is greedy. That if we really believe in the work we’re doing, or we really want to serve other people, the money shouldn’t matter. (A rationale that is regularly used to undervalue the work of people in the caring professions, who are disproportionately women.)
“the challenges women in salaried jobs face when it comes pay and negotiation are exacerbated for women who are self-employed, who must continually negotiate our worth”
These patterns don’t just lead to our own systemic underpayment. They fuel an ecosystem in which we systematically underpay each other as well: whether we are hiring other women as contractors, or purchasing each other’s products or services.
This is something I’ve been conscious of for a long time as someone who hires other women, asking the friends and colleagues I work with to quote me a rate they think is fair, rather than trying to talk them down to a rate that might be more affordable for me. But it’s only recently that I’ve started to apply these same principles to my own work.
“These patterns don’t just lead to our own systemic underpayment. They fuel an ecosystem in which we systematically underpay each other as well”
My sabbati horribilis prompted me to do some soul-searching about my own deep-seated beliefs about money: among them, the lessons I’d taken on from my family and upbringing, the impact of my years as a freelance writer on my sense of self-worth, and my fear of being seen as greedy and undeserving if I charged what was needed to sustain my work.
It helped me to think about what I would do with my money if I had a lot of it: hire support staff to make the projects I was working on stronger, buy work from artists I loved, invest in people and businesses doing socially transformative work, support causes I believe in (not as altruistic as it sounds - one of my fantasies involved buying a table at the Planned Parenthood Gala).
It also prompted me to change some of my personal practices around money. To charge for projects based on the number of hours I estimated it would take me to complete them, rather than what I perceived the value to be to the client. (This is the opposite of what most entrepreneurs and consultants will tell you to do - they believe you earn more when you charge for value - but it resulted in an immediate increase in income, and no one has complained about price.) To track the time I spend on all the projects I work on - including the ones that don’t currently break even - so I have a clearer understanding of what I should be earning from them.
Finally, it was the impetus that prompted me to start thinking about our March Powerbitches discussion “We Need To Talk About Money,” which looks at questions around $$$ on a psychological, practical, and systemic level. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post in which our members share their best money lessons and advice.
This won’t be the beginning and end of the Powerbitches conversation about money, I’m sure. It’s a topic that cuts to the core of so many things, from values, to our perceptions of our own value, to our ability to create and maintain boundaries.
But it’s definitely a conversation I’m excited to start.