Lady Business: The Myth of Free Work

Newspapers learned too late that giving away content for free is pretty costly. The Wall Street Journal was among the leaders in requiring a subscription to view most of their content; the New York Times and others followed reluctantly and much later.

That’s why newspapers like the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune have scaled back on printing, while others have folded completely. 

Essentially, print subscriptions and advertisers pay the salaries of the reporters who produce the work that you love in print newspapers. In the feminist blogosphere, the same principle applies, even if the way publications are structured isn’t quite the same. Most feminist blogs aren’t funded at all, or, like Bitch, are reader-supported nonprofits that don’t run on ads.

The conundrum, of course, is that important work is often underfunded and done by those who have the means to do it, which Courtney Martin wrote about in 2011 for The Nation, here:

Many feminists innovated remarkably early on in the Internet’s existence, founding blogs and online communities, but we’ve largely stalled in progress over the last few years because we are under-resourced and overwhelmed. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the executive editor of, explains, “Blogging has become the third shift. You do your activist work, then you have a job to make money and then you blog on top of that. It’s completely unsupported.”

This is significant because it points at the longterm effects of free work: Working for free is not a sustainable way to live. Women and people of color are almost always asked to do free work. The only problem is, there’s no such thing as working for free. People who can afford to do free work are the elite, as Martin points out in her piece.

In 2010, my colleague Omar Gallaga, a tech writer at the Austin American Statesman who also contributes to NPR and CNN, posted a blog that changed my life. The title was simple: “How much it costs me to come speak at your event for free.”

Most journalists get asked at some point to come speak to a middle school class about writing or to some other group about their area of expertise (whether it be sports writing, movies, education or whatever else). Over the years, I’ve spoken to journalism classes, to a Writer’s League group, on panels about social media for public relations professionals and lots of other places. The speaking engagements are not always short; they can go on for two hours or more and I’ve sometimes had to do them solo. I never get paid to do them and because of this, I’ve always taken a “I’ll just wing it” approach. If I do a presentation of any kind, it’s usually a PowerPoint left over from something I was paid to work on or something hastily pulled together on a topic that’s typically not of my choosing.

Omar wrote, too, about the difficulty of getting exposure for your work, and the invitations that come with that, but also the fact that people don’t always treat their invited guests well—to say nothing of actually paying them for showing up. He worked out the costs of travel, parking, lunch, psychiatry for his kids because of the time he spends away, flowers for his wife to make up for always working and the cost of the actual work, low-balled and came up with $273.

I was so happy to see these articles because I’d never considered the tradeoff and privilege of using one’s talents and skills for a good cause. As a self-employed freelancer, my time is my money. The same is true even if you are working at a business and have a side gig. Anyone who wants to bend your ear, pick your brain—they are asking you to do free work.

I haven’t quite figured out how to handle this yet, except to remind people that I do have bills to pay. I am always conflicted about how to balance my need to earn money with the demands of the market.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. I don’t get rich writing for Bitch, but I believe in what it stands for. I also appreciate that Bitch considers it important to pay online and print contributors (even though it’s not very much). I believe in the importance of a smart, feminist take on popular culture and providing alternative narratives to the dreck that is over leveled at women in mainstream media. (No, they didn’t tell me to write that.)

I have written guest posts for blogs that I love, but only a few and usually while I was working on several other paid pieces. I sometimes edit pieces for a couple of friends and provide free feedback in exchange for the same.

I don’t believe that we have to get paid for every single thing we do. But since women, especially, tend to be more socially connected, and more expressive and amenable to doing it, we get asked to do free work more often. This is to say nothing of the free and/or invisible work that comes with family life and the myth of work-life balance.

Has that been your experience? If so, how have you negotiated the myth of free work with work that actually pays you?

Previously: New Female CEOs, Coming Right Up, How Do You Navigate Boys Club Culture?

by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is a Bronx native and the author of four books including two published last year, All City, a novella, and a memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in New York City.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

A lot of my friends and loose

A lot of my friends and loose (read: Facebook) acquaintances are university students and I constantly get asked to either proofread or translate their work or some literature excerpts (I'm bilingual (German/English) and have a very good grasp of both languages). I almost NEVER get anything offered in return, e. g. tokens of appreciation or money. But I *do* spend a lot of time on these jobs - I work full-time in a very stressful job and do the proofreading/translating in my free time (lunch break or after work).

I don't mind doing these jobs for good friends for free (since I know that I can rely on them to help me when I'm in need), but I'm fed up with acquaintances or friends of friends coming to me and asking me to proofread 20 pages of a bachelor's thesis until tomorrow 8 am or to translate 5 pages of text in an hour. So I've started asking for money - on one hand, it weeds out the jerks and on the other hand I make a bit of money on the side if someone wants to cough up the dough. But it was hard when I started asking, since the I doubted my own worth ("Is my work good enough to ask for money?" "But person X won't think I'm nice if I don't help them for free!"). F*** that noise, seriously.

@Karin, this has been my

@Karin, this has been my experience as well with friends asking that I proofread or edit their papers. The worst of these was at the end of last semester when someone sent me three paragraphs and asked that I "help" write the term paper that was due the next morning. No, thanks.

laughing at "no thanks"

That's my general reaction to the free work I get asked to do.
I think what bothers me most about it is the sentiment that I must not have other things to do, so I can totally take time out of my life and otherwise busy schedule to do (fill in the blank).

Don't take advantage of freelancers

Thank you for writing this! I have been thinking about it for a couple of years now. It was not until last year, when I got a contract that really valued my work (it was the first time that I was getting paid at market-rate), that I was brave enough to say no to unpaid or underpaid work. I am in the process of renegotiating a multi-year contract and I am meeting such resistance even though I know that the organization can afford to meet my pay expectations. I believe in the organization's work, but I dislike very much the privilege espoused by the management.

I am learning that I have to factor in: time spent working/consulting, healthcare and other living expenses.

The challenge, however, is dealing with small community organizations who I understand have small budgets. I have been lucky that I have been treated well. But, I need to pay bills, and health insurance (most important!) so paid lunches are not enough!

Small organizations v. Big ones

I totally understand what you mean. It's so true...because I consider my writing/reporting to be a public service in some ways, I can justify lower paying work or sometimes writing for free depending on the circumstance.

But I know that settling for that on a consistent basis is also a way of devaluing my work and not doing the tough work you're talking about of negotiating and asking for what you want and what your experience suggests you deserve.

The way I try to look at organizations that can pay me well is that the things they afford me allow me to make room for the ones that I care about and may not pay as well. I think that's my version of a work-life balance.

for tutoring freelancers

Thank you for writing this! I have a similar situation as a freelance tutor. I'm constantly getting asked by parents if I can lower my rate (which, after taxes for being self-employed and gas to drive to their house) is already fairly low or provide various types of discounts. When I'm not being asked to lower my rate, I'm expected to change student time slots with just hours' notice, or schedule last minute sessions. If I don't comply, I usually get attitude. If I charge for a last-minute cancellation (which is in my contract policy) I get attitude there too. I'm expected to stay after our sessions for sometimes up to 30 minutes chatting with parents about their child, all off the clock.

That being said, I've found a couple of solutions for folks who might be in a similar boat:
1) A matter of fact, here's my availability, end of story. This was hard, at first, when I was just getting started, since I desperately wanted the appointments, but as I built a client base, I could legitimately say "take it or leave it" (nicely!) and feel comfortable with it.
2) Letting them know ahead of time that I have to get to someone right after their appointment but will happily follow up via email, if they need something. (95% of the time they never follow up.)
3) When I get a lot of pushback, simply stating my rate in the context of being a professional with a master's and years of experience and a track record of success. I also tend to explain how I arrived at my rates-- I charge less for generalized HW & organizational help than I do for test prep or in-depth subject remediation or SPED attention, simply because of the prep time involved.
4) When I was first starting out, I used to quote them a higher rate than I expect to receive and let them know that I'm discounting it for them for whatever reason, and then give them my actual rate. Now that I have more clients than I know what to do with, I don't need to do it.


You've got good ones. Those are all helpful tips. Especially learning how to say no to undesirable/time-sucking situations.

Paid by the hour

J.: Great article.

As an attorney, I belong to one of the professions where you are literally charging folks for your time. In six minute increments. I'm a family lawyer, so there are certain kinds of cases I will do flat-fee (wills, uncontested adoptions), but so many kinds are really variable in what's needed, so hourly is how it's done. I could easily fill my day with deserving folks for pro bono work, but that doesn't feed my kids. I feel like whenever I go to solo/small firm CLEs, the A1 thing they tell you is GET PAID FOR YOUR WORK. Up front. And when you do pro bono, do it consciously, for the folks YOU pick to do it for. However often I hear it, still good to hear. And good advice for lots of types of jobs/tasks.

"Free work"

Interesting that Bitch even let you bring this up. I am a reader of Bitch and the blogs, but they are also incredibly guilty of soliciting unpaid work. They might pay their contributors minimally but their internships are all unpaid. In a world where college graduates have massive debt on top of unemployment, offering a highly competitive unpaid internship is just dangling a gold-plated metaphorical carrot from the lap of luxury in the face of a bunch of people who can't afford to even apply, considering if we do work we work several part-time jobs unrelated to our degree without benefits, insurance, or extra for savings or paying off loans.
Applauding them for paying you while ignoring the kind of elite people who are actually able to "work" for Bitch is a bit naive.

2 things: First, I agree with

2 things: First, I agree with Julia that unpaid internships have reached a really exploitative point, and while I sympathize deeply with Bitch (and read it religiously), I am 25 and only just got my first "real" paid job, despite years of interning and applying. Unpaid internships do devalue work and education, and can leave young people in a jobless hole because so many of us have acquired so many internships without being able to move up, only laterally (not to mention the elite problem! And the fact that at 24, I really wanted to stop doing unpaid work and being fed by my mother...).

Second, my partner has the unpaid work problem--he has a full time job, but is a trained artist and illustrator and so often comes home only to go to his second job in the studio. People regularly ask him for favors--a recent one was a friend who wanted him to paint a wedding gift for total strangers, and he only paid $100--and it seems to be in the context of, "oh but it's a compliment to your talent, and painting isn't REAL work, it's fun!" But it IS real work, and takes a ton of time-- time that he could be spending on better-paid projects, or with me, or resting after a long day at his regular job. It's incredibly frustrating that his kind of work isn't valued that same as others'.

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