Between a Boss and a Hard Place: Why More Women are Freelancing

Illustration by Jax Ko

This article appears in our Summer 2016 issue, Money. Subscribe today!

It’s 2004. I’ve lost my voice. I can’t even whisper, which is a problem, since my job at a Manhattan legal-services provider involves running the switchboard and sweet-talking attorneys. After a week, my boss calls me into a conference room to discuss my options. “You could file for short-term disability,” he says, “but this is the real world. If you do, you’ll be blacklisted.”

It’s 2009. I’m nine months pregnant. I’m working long hours at the translation agency to prepare clients for my maternity leave. My boss has granted me two weeks’ pay, a generous offer by U.S. standards, and my partner and I have saved up what we hope will be enough to get us through three months without my salary.

It’s 2010. I’m having an abortion. My daughter is five months old. I’ve just returned from maternity leave and am working a split shift. I don’t get much sleep and can’t seem to concentrate on my job. Part of me wants this second baby—but I know it would mean getting fired, and who would hire a pregnant woman?

It’s 2015. My daughter has a fever. I take the afternoon off to take her to the pediatrician. I’ll be working late into the evening, but I’m a freelancer; I can make my own hours, as long as the work gets done on time. I didn’t get much done last week because my Crohn’s disease flared up, so I’m behind. Luckily for us, my partner has a traditional job that provides us with health insurance. Back at home, I park my daughter in front of a movie and head upstairs to work. I’m just starting to concentrate when—“Mommy?”

The gig economy, the freelance workforce, the precariat—whatever you want to call it, there’s no question that all over the industrialized world, traditional full-time employment is giving way to independent, contract-based labor.

As employers cut down on benefits and flexibility, more and more people, especially parents and those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, are getting squeezed out of “regular” workplaces and into the freelance economy. What they find there is a whole new labor market that comes with a fresh set of obstacles—and some benefits, too.

While magazines like Fast Company and Inc. love to cheerlead the growth of “entrepreneurship” and “small business,” the truth is a little more complicated. It isn’t that the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic have suddenly overtaken the masses. It’s that big corporations and startups alike have realized that it’s cheaper and easier to subcontract labor than to employ people, pay them salaries, provide them with benefits, and assume legal and tax responsibilities for them. The companies that are thriving now have few employees of their own. Uber, for example, didn’t invest wads of capital in buying a fleet of vehicles and hiring drivers: It simply built a platform through which independent drivers with their own vehicles could find paying fares. Similarly, startups like Handy and Homejoy provide apps where independent workers offer services like housecleaning and furniture assembly. In industries where technically independent workers often have to pay fees to the “house” for the privilege of working—like hairdressing and sex work—many are instead venturing out on their own. And in positions where workers have traditionally been in-house and even unionized, like newspaper journalists and college professors, freelancing in various forms has become so common that full-time employment can seem almost quaint.

From the corporate perspective, this is genius—more profit, less responsibility, and a much smaller investment. From the workers’ perspective, however, it’s bleak: Where there were once good union jobs that could support a family, there are now only gigs to be chased, constantly. Fifty-three million Americans—34 percent of the nation’s workforce—are now classified as freelancers. That number spiked in 2008 and 2009, as the global economy slid into recession and U.S. employers stopped hiring and started firing. Faced with few prospects for employment, workers of all kinds began taking on freelance jobs, part time or full time, and it’s now common for people who, say, used to be union grocery-store workers to deliver groceries for Instacart as independent contractors. About half of the freelance workforce is classified as “self-employed,” meaning they operate some sort of business. The other half consists of temporary and contingent labor, most of which involves low-paying service work and manual labor. Corporations no longer need to invest in recruiting and maintaining a skilled, satisfied workforce; there’s no incentive to tend to or even acknowledge workers’ humanity when there’s an army of replacements standing at the ready.

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While the U.S. economy has, at least by some formal measures, begun to recover (official unemployment is now down to 5.5 percent from a high of 10 percent in 2009), wages have remained stagnant, and the trend toward outsourced, casualized labor has only increased. This often involves “deprofessionalizing” once-prestigious jobs: The American Association of University Professors, for example, has found that more than half of university faculty are now classified as “part-time” contingent labor, despite working more than full-time hours. In 1969, just 21 percent of college teaching jobs were non–tenure track; in 2013, that number had jumped to 66 percent, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. In elementary and secondary education, the rise of charter schools has undermined teachers’ unions and lowered salaries and professional qualification standards. The American Copy Editors Society, once composed almost entirely of salaried, in-house newspaper editors, now estimates that nearly half its members are freelancers.

So what does this mean for women? In the 1970s and 1980s, career feminists focused on getting women equal pay and a seat in the boardroom. But the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass and the pay gap has persisted, particularly for women of color. Some women have indeed made it into the higher echelons of the corporate and political worlds, such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose bestselling book, Lean In, urges women to focus on career advancement. However, this brand of feminism tends to have a blind spot when it comes to class. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, drew criticism when she had a nursery built in her office for her newborn child—but banned her employees from working from home, a move that disrupted childcare arrangements for many workers, some of whom had taken their jobs specifically for the flexibility of working from home.

This article appears in our Summer 2016 issue, Money. Subscribe today!

Sick days are also a major problem for women in the workplace, particularly those who are pregnant, parenting, or dealing with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Only 75 percent of full-time workers in the United States and 27 percent of part-time workers have any paid sick days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For full-timers, the average is eight to nine sick days per year. Many employers have chosen to stop distinguishing between sick time and vacation time, offering workers a set number of paid days off per year to be used for either purpose. Exceed that number and you’re likely to be subject to disciplinary action—and that’s easy to do if you and your child both get a virus or two or need to access medical care a few times a year.

For those who have a chronic health condition or who care for a child or a family member with health issues, the crackdown on sick time can make it nearly impossible to hold down a full-time job. Jeanne McKane, an editor from Toronto, was already freelancing when her daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes—“but if I hadn’t been,” she says, “I would have had to leave the traditional working world, and quickly. There were just too many needs to be met at home and at school—needs that could arise suddenly and didn’t fit into the hours outside a nine-to-five workday.” As the freelance sector grows, in-house employees are finding themselves squeezed ever tighter. “Streamlined” workforces and outsourced labor often mean a structure in which a skeleton crew of full-time employees oversees a small army of freelancers. They’re expected to do more work in less time and feel grateful to have a “real” job—even as their salaries and benefits are cut.

Then, of course, there is the pay gap. Women in America made an average of 79 cents for every man’s dollar in 2014, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Break it down by race and ethnicity, as the American Association of University Women did, and the division is even starker: African American women make an average 64 cents to a white man’s dollar; Native American women 59 cents; and Latina women only 54 cents. Women of color also hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the service sector, where few workers receive benefits at all.

Look at the salary numbers, then look at the cost of childcare: In 33 U.S. states, it’s more expensive to put a baby in daycare than it is to pay in-state tuition at a public university, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute. The same study noted that “a full-time minimum-wage worker in Hawaii—a state whose minimum wage of $7.75 is the median amount in the United States—would only be able to pay for a year of care after working January to September and devoting all her wages to it.”

In other words: lack of paid maternity leave, inadequate time off, little flexibility, and unequal pay that doesn’t always cover the cost of childcare. It doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that this combination squeezes women out of the workplace. As a result, the number of stay-at-home mothers has risen since the start of the 2000s and is now at 29 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of women freelancers, too, has increased: A Freelancers Union study found that women now make up 53 percent of the independent workforce. Women with full-time jobs are more likely than men to moonlight as freelancers for extra cash, and those who freelance full time cite flexible schedules as a major motivator (58 percent of women versus 43 percent of men).

Of course, many women do caregiving labor while also freelancing. It’s not an easy task, as editor Meg Wallace of Chicago notes: “If you have to pack your schedule tightly to make budget, unexpected scope creep or a family emergency will cause your work to overflow into the weekends and the middle of the night, and self-care will be difficult.” For Lisa Péré of Fort Collins, Colorado, freelancing is a way to juggle earning a living with caring for a child with a chronic illness. “There’s no way I could be parenting if I wasn’t freelancing. I just spent the past two days with a sick kid who ended up in the hospital. If I’d been stuck in an office? It probably would’ve ended up with an emergency-room trip and possibly a much worse situation to deal with.”

Flexibility is great and all, but the Freelancers Union found that the biggest motivator for going freelance was making more money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2013 that, all other things being equal, female freelancers outearned male freelancers by $10 per week.  This suggests that women who were undervalued in more traditional workplaces—because of sex, race, parental status, age, gender, sexual orientation, looks, social connections, and hierarchies, or any of the other factors that give men the workplace advantage—earn more when they ditch the boss and take their chances in the freelance sector.

That said, the factors that persistently disadvantage women and non-cis men economically don’t disappear: being responsible for more caregiving work and more domestic labor, the physical demands of pregnancy and infant care, and the higher prices businesses often charge women for the same services. Feminine socialization plays a role, too: It can be very difficult to play hardball, say no to unreasonable requests, and charge what you’re really worth. (One freelance copywriter dealt with this by adopting a male pen name: She found it easier to be “bold” and “straightforward” and earned significantly more as “James Chartrand” of “Men with Pens” than when she used her real name.)

It’s also important to note that class doesn’t disappear when a worker enters the freelance sector. Working-class people tend to move into temp and contingent-labor gigs with low wages and a high degree of supervision. It’s quite common for corporations to classify jobs as “freelance” or “temp” disingenuously. In deciding whether to consider workers freelance, the irs considers whether they are supervised, how much control they have over their hours, whose equipment they use, and whether they work on site, among other factors. However, because the irs is understaffed and its budget has been cut, it’s several years behind on audits—which means employers can get away with misclassifying employees and avoid paying payroll taxes or providing benefits.

Elsewhere, business-oriented media exhorts freelancers to see themselves as small-business owners or startup CEOs. A raft of business books, for instance, offer strategies to help you become a “six-figure freelancer.” These strategies particularly target knowledge workers, who are often highly educated, middle class, or already wealthy. That class position makes freelancing a lot easier: You can afford a nice website to advertise your services, access business loans and lines of credit, and spread the word about your services via social networks. Working-class freelancers are less likely to have access to credit, office space, financial literacy, and social connections to wealthy clients. Despite the hype about getting rich as the CEO of You, Incorporated, most freelancers maintain the same class position they had in more formal workplaces.

For many women, though, it’s the intangible benefits that make freelancing worthwhile. Working outside a traditional office setting can mean freedom from a host of gendered restrictions: no pantyhose, no high heels, no extra-tight uniforms or dry-cleaning bills. For those who work alone, there’s much less emotional labor—faking smiles, making small talk, soothing others’ feelings—and more freedom to drop difficult or abusive clients. Indeed, the power of consent, of saying no to the projects that smell like trouble and the clients you hate, is perhaps the single greatest advantage to freelance employment—contingent though it is upon an abundance of work.

Without an office watercooler to socialize around, many freelancers have turned to social media to create their own communities of practice. Organizations like the Freelancers Union and the Editorial Freelancers Association, though they can’t provide the negotiation and protection offered by labor unions, do offer support and education. Informal networks are also crucial: freelance writers, sex workers, artisans, and many others have started Facebook groups, email lists, and formal professional associations or networking groups. These channels help us figure out where to find good clients, how to get paid, and how to manage taxes. For women who freelance from home, they also alleviate isolation, offering camaraderie that helps fill the void left by workplace interaction.

The turn toward a freelance economy isn’t a solution for sexism; it won’t end the pay gap or discrimination in the workplace, and it can’t take the place of real, systemic changes to labor law, healthcare, childcare, and the way we view gender. For that, we need mass movements for social change and an intersectional feminism that incorporates struggles around race, class, disability, and more. In the short-term context of an economy in which employers have abandoned any pretense of caring for workers’ needs as human beings, though, freelancing is serving as a stopgap measure created this by necessity—one that, from contract to contract and tax season to tax season, we’re figuring out as we go.  

This article was published in Money Issue #71 | Summer 2016
by Sarah Grey
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Sarah Grey is a writer and the founder of Grey Editing.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Those 9-5 salaries

2010 - you did what you had to do and your family is probably better for it. Thank you for sharing that here. I also made my family planning choices based on my situation and I'm cool with that.

When you freelance do you find that the hours just don't add up? I've been at this home desk since 9am sharp (it's 10 pm) and I'm logging 6 billable hours. Yeah I did an errand but I also am held to a strict budget - if a task isn't clearly for a client it's just overhead aka unpaid.

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