Falling into freelance

Whether jumping into or thrown into independent employment, some female and gender-variant writers are finding success by comparing notes

Kachet Jackson-Henderson leads a meeting of The Blog Bloc, a membership club she founded in April 2017 to bring together bloggers, freelancers and small business owners who want to learn about topics such as developing a personal brand.

Kachet Jackson-Henderson leads a meeting of The Blog Bloc, a membership club she founded in April 2017 to bring together bloggers, freelancers and small business owners who want to learn about topics such as developing a personal brand.

Photo courtesy of The Blog Bloc

Kachet Jackson-Henderson didn’t choose to ditch the 9-to-5 for an independent career. A former corporate marketing specialist with an emerging side gig as a stylist, Jackson-Henderson was laid off in 2015. That was the day her hustle began.

She sent LinkedIn emails and set coffee dates. She monetized her fashion blog—formerly The Lipstick Giraffe, now The Kachet Life (like cachet). And she gave herself two months to land at least one solid contract. She met that self-imposed deadline with two weeks to spare.

“There’s some people who jump two feet into freelance,” Jackson-Henderson said, “and there’s some who just fall into it and figure it out.”

The percentage of contingent workers in the labor market—made up of independent contractors, freelancers, the writer of this article, your Airbnb hosts and Lyft drivers—has been difficult to measure. In June, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that contingent workers made up approximately 3.8 percent of the workforce in May 2017. Based on a self-reported survey that distinguished between contingent and “alternative arrangement” workers, the report stated the percentage of contingent workers had fallen slightly from February 2005 and May 2017.

Those inexact figures are likely to be further affected by a recent court ruling that could impact a range of industries. In April, the California Supreme Court limited the definition for what constitutes an independent contractor.

“There’s little known about self-employed professionals in the U.S.,” said Carly Moulton, data insights and communications manager with FreshBooks, an accounting software company.

A FreshBooks study released in spring 2018 estimated that 13 million women could leave their traditional jobs for self-employment in the next five years. The research team wanted to examine why women were leaving traditional work, what they expected out of self-employment and the reality.

“There’s a lot of research about the … challenges women in corporate offices and traditional workplaces face—the glass ceiling, imposter syndrome,” Moulton said. “Nobody ever asked self-employed women those kinds of questions. That’s what we’re trying to get to at the heart of this research.”

Some of the women surveyed reported facing similar challenges in the freelance world as they did as employees. Just more than a third of women reported experiencing gender discrimination, 30 percent believed they’re not taken as seriously as their male peers and gender pay disparity persists.

Katherine Chalmers, an associate professor of economics at Sacramento State University, said that economic models tend to lump many individuals onto a level playing field and disregard the social aspects of work.

“When [economists] talk about rational economic actors, they tend to assume away a lot of the real-world stuff,” said Chalmers, who teaches a course on women and the economy. “Because our economy is a socially institute process, it’s highly gendered because it reflects … the different expectations that our society places on men and women.”

In her academic career, Chalmers has witnessed and adapted to unfair professional treatment. While working at Bowling Green State University in her late 20s, she said she was waved quiet by the new dean as she discussed her research at his welcome lunch. The only other woman at the table, a professor with tenure, later approached Chalmers with advice: “Start keeping notes. Every time that happens to you. Every time they call you a wrong name, every time they skip over you in meetings. … Just keep track of it.”

Those dismissive moments, “barbed comments or the veiled criticisms,” can be blind spots for men, Chalmers said.

Lux Alptraum, a New York-based freelance writer who formerly owned and ran the sex blog Fleshbot, said that gender bias in various work environments is often unintentional.

“It’s really unfortunate that bias is so knee-jerk and unconscious,” Alptraum said.

Maybe major publications don’t pay men more per word, but the representation of women, people of color or gender-variant writers may be lacking, she added.

“If those people are forced to go to lower-paying publications, then that in and of itself is a kind of pay disparity,” she said.

Alptraum co-founded Out of the Binders, a nonprofit that aims to advance the careers of women and gender-variant writers. The organization runs the secret Facebook group “Binders,” (inspired by Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment in a 2012 presidential debate), a support network that runs tens of thousands deep. Binders, Alptraum said, benefits anyone who doesn’t benefit from cisgender male privilege.

Alptraum said a major challenge for freelancers is wage transparency, which is why she doesn’t shy away from telling fellow writers what she gets paid.

As confident as Jackson-Henderson is, getting over the discomfort of talking price with her colleagues wasn’t easy.

“But when you’re freelance, you have to tell people what you make or you’re going to get freakin’ peanuts,” she said. “It becomes a lot easier and we can all rise together.”

According to Freshbooks’ survey, 78 percent of women are happier working for themselves than they were as employees and 96 percent do not want to return to traditional employment. Sometimes people ask Jackson-Henderson if she’d like to go back to working for someone else.

“If the right opportunity came around, I would jump on it,” she said. “But so far, I’ve been able to make a really sustainable living on my own, so I’m going to do it as long as I can.”