Freelancing Isn't Feminist - It's Badly Negotiated Wage Labor for $5 an Hour

Surround yourself with positivity, exploit all marketing outlets, choose a specialized skill—this is the repetitive wisdom passed on to every budding creative entrepreneur. Less often do we hear advice like, “increase the price of an invoice,” or “make it non-negotiable,” especially as it relates to the gendered wages within self-employment.

The freelance market is arguably trending across industries, with some figureheads going so far as to say “freelance is feminist,” mainly because women make up a slight majority. Unfortunately, before feminists get too heady on the issue, we need to look at whether the freelance market is any more "freeing" to the women in it, or if it is liberating any of its entrepreneurial workforce. Right now, it’s just another deregulated economy in which workers are underpaid and largely invisible.

A recent study published by HoneyBook gives some visibility to the subject, showing that women in the “creative economy” are actually paid significantly less than their male counterparts, sometimes taking in an average of $5 an hour.

There are many reasons for concern about this wage discrepancy. Not only because HoneyBook found that 63% of men and women believed they were earning equal pay, but also because of the growing workforce within the world of freelance, where there are already 57.3 million freelancers in the U.S.

Industry data from UpWork and the Freelance Labor Union suggests that freelancers will be the majority by 2027, growing three times faster than the U.S. workforce overall, and contributing over $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy annually. While scenes of cramped coffee shops may be an indicator of this burgeoning workforce, these numbers are still astounding. Without sites like UpWork and HoneyBook, they would also be hard to track.

HoneyBook is the self-employed’s business management tool, hosting clients similar to those in the aforementioned study. Labeled under the guise of “creative entrepreneurs,” they are working professionals navigating gigs in industries like photography, graphic design and writing. With its niche data, the site analyzed over 200,000 client invoices from October 2016-2017 to look at wage discrepancy, finding that on average women made 32% less than their male competitors. This gap is even larger than the national average, where women earn 24% less than men nationally, 76 cents to the dollar. Troubling news for the largest, opportunist workforce around: that is, women in freelance.

In 2015, women made up 53% of the freelance market. This slight dominance encouraged Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelance Labor Union, to preemptively call freelancing ”feminist.” Horowitz argued that the lifestyle of a freelancer was more palatable to the roles women desired, whether that was co-careers or gendered domestic labor. She also argued that freelance work allowed women to avoid male privilege in the workplace, notably the boys club at board meetings.

While some of Horowitz’s arguments hold value, we can clearly see how freelance work is still an unequal field, at least if pay is any measure of equality among genders. Women who do enter the field already consider themselves to have less bargaining power. Meanwhile, the majority of invoices in HoneyBook’s study quoted a non-negotiable price, meaning women are more likely to charge less for the job. Clearly, the reasons for the gender pay gap are embedded and multi-layered. Nevertheless, the study shows that freelance is not entirely the liberated, equal rights, equal pay landscape Horowitz claims it to be.

Asked why they enter the market, freelancers often cite the flexibility of the work in a number of terms: the ability to be their own boss, as well as the ability to choose their projects and work location. In essence, men and women draw upon idealistic dreams of escaping workplace power-dynamics to find economic independence in their pajamas -- a depiction that has been repeatedly critiqued. Freelancers still enter a labor force that has few congressional protections and is arguably as successful as the social networks you were economically born into. Essentially it is prey to the same laissez-faire ideals that have manipulated structural inequity across generations of workers in the U.S. It just imagines itself differently—now under the guise of “creative” entrepreneurship.

HoneyBook’s research is just one insight into wage gaps. As a largely deregulated economy with unparalleled growth, it is important to make visible the economic and social divides embedded in the independent workforce. We can start by debunking the claim that freelancing is a more equitable field to work in, and with it, the idea that any economy is without prejudice.

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