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Pay inequality between men and women in the workplace feels like old news, but disclosures from large organisations like the BBC have helped to spur social movements and encourage women to demand pay parity. The picture for creative freelancers, however, is still in need of clarity and transparency.

Few were surprised at what they saw last year when large companies in the UK were forced to disclose the gender pay gap in their organisations –  it was never a case of if the gap existed, but how big it was.

Still, some revelations drew bigger gasps than others – at Goldman Sachs, for example, 83% of the 25% best paid workers are men.

But, as I said, not a huge surprise. Pay inequality among men and women is the topic, it seems, that will not go away.

In the last couple of years, further light has been thrown on gender inequality with social movements MeToo against sexual harassment and TimesUp, which has seen women – many in the public eye – demanding pay parity.

The big picture that emerged from the disclosures made for sobering reading: of the more than 10,000 public and private sector organisations that were obliged to publish details of gender pay gaps, 78% paid men more than women, and the national median gender pay gap was calculated at 18.4%.

There is less data available on the remuneration of freelance workers, but at the end of 2017 the Association of Independent Professionals and Self-employed (IPSE) carried out a survey of 1,003 self-employed people to explore the pay inequality among freelancers. It found that there is a consistent difference in pay rates between males and female workers. Overall, males reported earning 16% more on average than females.

“This pay gap rises as women get older, often owing to the so-called motherhood penalty,” explains Imogen Farhan, IPSE policy and external affairs officer. “In your 20s the gap is 5% and then after you have a child it increases. Self-employment provides opportunities because it has flexibility and you can work around other commitments. But of course if you take that time out or scale back assignments it means you might lose client relationships and, in turn, work.”

In the creative industries, the BBC was the big news story last year when it published the pay of its highest earners. It was denounced for its huge disparity between male and female stars – Chris Evans, the corporation’s highest paid presenter made £2.2m while Claudia Winkleman, the highest earning woman, took home between £450,000 and £500,000. Behind the headlines, the report revealed shocking disparities between what men and women were paid across the corporation.

“The revelations of pay inequity at the BBC when the high-earners list was made public threw long-overdue spotlight on the scourge of unequal pay,” says Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists. “It demonstrated the scale of the problem in journalism with yawning pay gaps in far too many media companies.”

So, among creative freelancers is there a gender pay gap? The answer is probably. Likely.

The evidence of pay inequality among writers, designers, photographers and other creative freelancers is so often anecdotal and based on a hunch, on gut feeling.

“Inevitably the gender pay gap exists among freelance journalists – we clearly have a societal problem with pay inequity in the UK and in reality freelancers are a vulnerable group of workers that media companies are quick to exploit,” says Stanistreet. “The lack of collective bargaining rights for freelancers is an added barrier to assessing whether inequities exist in freelance rates from workplace to workplace.”

Joanna Higgins has seen both sides of the fence – formerly a magazine editor, she has worked as a full-time freelance  writer and editor for many years. “It never occurred to me that my gender might influence what I am paid,” she says. “I suspect it hasn’t, but how would I know? I have never compared notes with other women in my field of writing.”

However, among photographers a key driver of the pay gap is that staff photographers are overwhelmingly male in the first place. According to studies carried out by the British Photographic Council, over 80% of their members are male. The largest group of women was found among freelance part-time photographers. “A large number of staff redundancies has created pools of male freelancers who are already well connected and preferentially have worked passed on to them,” says freelance photographer Natasha Hirst.

“Even if the rates are the same, male photographers will tend to pick up more work. I know excellent female photographers who have struggled to get themselves onto the freelance pool for papers and find that male freelance photographers pass work onto other men and only to women when it is a crap job or nobody else is available.”

Confounding the problem around pay disparity is the trend for using unpaid labour throughout the creative industries. “There is an expectation that you work for free in these super competitive industries,” says Farhan. “In order to get exposure people are willing to work for free to get a foot in the door, which ultimately brings the pay down in the sector and devalues the work people are doing.”

So apart from gut feelings about inherent discrimination when it comes to paying people, what are the drivers? Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, says female freelancers are probably paid less because they don’t value their work, so they don’t ask for higher rates.

“Women often think that whoever they negotiate with will appreciate their talent, what they can contribute, and pay them accordingly, but that is not what happens,” he says. “Men don’t think that way. They say, ‘I am going to squeeze them as much as I can’.”

Men, he adds, exude more self-confidence than women; even when they know they are pushing it. “Men might say, ‘this is my rate, take or leave it. I have other work on’ while women will say, ‘I don’t have that much work on, so I will pitch it at this rate’ and therefore probably undervalue their contribution,” he says.

While Cooper concedes the BBC furore has empowered women and got many thinking about their value, he believes this only represents the start. “I think we still have a problem,” he says.

Farhan agrees that the process of setting rates is a tricky one for women freelancers. “This is a big problem. Anecdotal evidence shows that women set their rates dramatically lower than male competitors,” she says. “More transparency around what people charge would be helpful.”

But in a competitive sector where people are unlikely to discuss salaries in the first place and with so many variables that benchmarking yourself is almost impossible. As Higgins points out, “level of experience, industry and publication rates all influence what you can charge.”

Of course there are some guidelines available –  the NUJ rates guide for one. “But in reality what clients are prepared to pay depends on geography, the budget of the organisation they are working for and what other local competition there is,” says Hirst.

And setting rates, adds Farhan, should be about more than charging for the words you write or the photos you provide. “People go into business because they have a particular skill, but I don’t think they necessarily think about the business side of it,” she says. “You have to factor into your rate things like sick pay, holiday pay, equipment and travel. All of that we say adds about a third of your cost.”

When first considering the issue, art director Sarah Barnett points to a structure of day rates that is applied across publishing, but then, she says, what rates you get in reality depends on the way you sell yourself. “I have seen far more men who give themselves the title of creative director and therefore charge more,” she says. “Female designers tend to sell themselves short and class themselves as general designer, which is obviously a lower day rate.”

Aga Geicko

Barnett is currently a staffer but, she says, if she went freelance she would be uncomfortable asking for the day rate she knows she is qualified to receive. “My male colleague who just went freelance is 10 years younger and less experienced, but he has no such worries. He already earns a lot more than I do,” she explains.

That being said, in her experience more female than male photographers negotiate the fee when she works on a commission with them. “It may just be that most of our regular photographers are male and they know our pay bracket,” she says. “But we have begun to actively commission more women and that means more negotiation.”

Speaking to writers, photographers and designers  makes it clear that pay inequality is not so clear-cut and comes down to your own personal style of pitching and selling yourself.  Social movements and a continued push to empower freelance women will help, but if the onus is on women to value their own quality rather than those commissioning paying them fairly for the service they provide, it might be a long road to equality.

Barnett has one solution. “Make commissioning anonymous – no names, no bias,” she says. “I heard about a company that recruited coders – a notoriously male profession – this way and when candidates came in for interviews they were all women.” Her and her team have completed an unconscious bias course, which provided food for thought. “It was an amazing eye opener and we have already started to change how we work,” she says.

This may amount to the one of the longest struggles for women in the labour market, the seemingly never ending fight for equal pay, but with every year and every new scandal there is also encouraging signs that women are empowered to continue to strive for equality.

The public scrutiny and the accompanying media storm has been helpful in many ways – it has got journalists talking for one. “Getting shot of the secrecy and encouraging people to start talking about their pay is a major first step in the road to tackling these problems,” says Stanistreet.

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