Tag Archives: freelance writing

This is What Happens When a Woman Writer Asks for Money

This article was originally published by Quartz on June 7, 2017.

Over the past few years, I’ve written a number of commentaries and op-eds related to the work I do in my day job, as a public opinion researcher. Unlike many freelance writers, I don’t rely on the income I earn from publishing my work. In fact, when I first started writing for media outlets, I was pleasantly surprised the first time a publication offered to pay me.

Over time, I learned that although less experienced writers sometimes take a few non-paying assignments to build up their portfolio, compensation for writing is the industry ideal. I say ideal rather than norm because despite the many editors and publishers with integrity who recognize that labor should be compensated for in dollars, not exposure, there are more than a handful who don’t follow this norm. They consider including the link to an author’s Twitter page at the end of her article reasonable payment.

Usually, when I submit a piece or pitch to an editor, I ask about pay, but I have also granted outlets permission to publish my pieces for free. The few times I have, the editors—usually of small newspapers or blogs—explained, with kindness and humility, that they could not pay freelancers, and that they completely understood if I wanted to take my work elsewhere. Because I could afford to, I chose to donate my work, to reach new readers.

When I submitted an opinion piece to an editor at a small local newspaper in Connecticut, I didn’t expect payment. After the editor accepted my piece and said nothing about money, I inquired if the newspaper pays for op-eds. I asked this out of principle—because I believe that people should be compensated for labor, and because I believe women in particular should ask for what they’re worth.

The editor wrote back saying that they do not pay writers. “Frankly,” he added, “because of the mention of money, I will not run it now. Thanks for your interest.”

Shock doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction to his e-mail. The shock quickly turned into anger when I realized that this editor had essentially retaliated against me for asking if I would be paid for my work. I sent an e-mail back that said:

“Writers are well within their rights to ask if a company using their work will pay them for it. Frankly, to discourage me from asking and penalizing me for it is not only unprofessional, it is unethical.”

I published the screenshots of this conversation on Twitter and received an outpouring of support from writers and editors all over the world who recognized the blatant injustice of what happened. I also sent a longer response back to the editor as well as the newspaper’s leadership, in which I argued that the editor’s behavior is symptomatic of larger problems plaguing in the media industry—the issue of fair compensation and transparency.

“This incident is a microcosm of broader issues that plague the writing and journalism communities,” I wrote. “While some outlets genuinely cannot afford to pay writers, they still recognize the dignity of writers’ labors, and treat them accordingly and respectfully. Professional news organizations and editors who value integrity will be transparent and upfront about their payment policy. Certainly, they will not pull an article when a writer simply asks if an outlet pays for pieces.”

What happened made me think about broader attitudes toward women writers and equal pay issues. Women workers everywhere (not just writers) are blamed for the pay gap because they don’t ask for money as often as men do. Women are told to “lean in,” to chase that raise or promotion before their male colleague snatches it with his masculine confidence and entitlement. Some women do not follow this advice for fear that speaking up would make them seem too aggressive or unlikeable. My experience would suggest they are, devastatingly, correct. And even though I didn’t actually ask for money (I asked if I would be compensated), the worst thing that could possibly happen in this scenario did happen—I was punished for speaking up. I did not want this point to be lost on the paper, and included this in my e-mail:

“Women in the workplace have a hard enough time as it is asking for what they deserve, and your editor’s reply is a perfect example of why that is. It sends the message that if you ask for what you’re worth, you won’t get it, and in fact you may be punished for asking in the first place. So don’t ask, stay silent. Is that the message the [newspaper] wants to send to women? Imagine if I was a 22-year-old just starting her career and received [the editor’s] reply? I would be terrified to ever pitch an article again!”

A few days after I sent this e-mail, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief tweeted at me to call her. I did, and we had a polite but somewhat vapid conversation about what happened and what the newspaper plans to do in response. She began the conversation by telling me “no one had any bad intent.” Somewhat bewildered by both her vagueness and implication that the incident was a misunderstanding, I respectfully but firmly explained that the incident was not about intent, but the events that took place: The editor pulled my article because I asked about money. Later that evening, I wrote her an e-mail elaborating:

“And I’m not sure if I made clear over the phone, but I strongly believe the editor should be held accountable for his behavior, whether that means he is fired, suspended, or penalized in some other way. It seemed like you may believe he just ‘said the wrong thing’ and didn’t intend harm—I want to make it clear to you that it was what he DID that was wrong, which was to pull my piece because I inquired about payment.”

I also suggested that, in the spirit of transparency, she might consider adding a payment policy to the newspaper’s website that explains freelance contributors are welcome to submit work but won’t be paid for it. (At the time of publication of this article, no such policy has been posted.)

I may not have been able to impact this newspaper, but publicly talking about my experience seems to have comforted other writers. My original Twitter post including screenshots of the e-mails received more than 300,000 impressions and was retweeted over 1,000 times.

This strong reaction isn’t surprising, as writers know the injustices and indignities associated with asking for what they deserve all too well. And women understand their impossible position: “you have to be assertive, yet not too confident, yet apologize for breathing,” as one Twitter user said in reply to my post.

The responsibility to compensate people who perform labor should fall on the institutions profiting off of said labor. Publications should include policies about writer compensation on their websites with standard rates of pay, and editors should bring up money first.

Some companies have already implemented such policies, because research shows that compensation transparency reduces inequities among women and people of color. These policies need to be more than ideals in the writing and journalism industry—they should be standard operational procedure that unequivocally demonstrates respect for the dignity of writers’ work.

What Really Happens When Women Writers Ask For More Money

This article was originally published by The Establishment, May 23, 2017.

Recently, I had a story accepted by the editor of a city paper. Since he hadn’t mentioned pay, I asked whether the publication compensates their contributors. He replied that no, they did not.

Then he said this: “Frankly, because of the mention of money, I will now not run [your article].”
And just like that, my piece was pulled.

We can’t prove, of course, that this editor wouldn’t have treated a male writer the same abusive way, but we can make an educated guess based on existing research that interactions like the one I experienced happen more often when the power dynamic is editor=male, writer=female. In an industry where men serve as gatekeepers, and women are routinely pigeonholed and devalued, it’s hard not to see my experience as emblematic of broader issues.
It’s hard not to surmise that it’s time for the publishing industry to confront some hard truths.

Like many women who work outside the home, I’ve experienced the trifecta of workplace discrimination throughout my career: unequal pay, sexual harassment, and sexist treatment. I recently made a conscious move to freelance work as a researcher and writer, mostly for the flexibility self-employment offers, but also in part to escape the sexist environments that dominate many workplaces. This choice is not unusual; one recent study found that the majority of full-time freelancers, 53%, are women—many of whom make this choice for the same reasons I did.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to learn that the freelance industry is no safe haven from discrimination.

One study from 2005 revealed a 42% pay gap between full-time male and female independent contractors, and a 35% gap between part-time independent contractors. More recent studies reveal things might be changing, though comprehensive research remains limited; a study from 2014 revealed that female freelancers were securing the majority of the gigs on the platform People Per Hour (58%), while earning up to 22% more per hour than their male counterparts. As for freelance writing specifically, that’s also been woefully understudied, but one Writer’s Union of Canada report revealed that female writers earned only 55% of what their male counterparts did.

As in other industries, some say that if women aren’t making as much as men, it must be their own fault — they have to be more assertive in asking for higher pay. In the world of freelance writing, where negotiating pay is a constant, the pressure to “lean in” and demand more is particularly pronounced.

While I’ve always known that putting the onus on women to ensure that they get paid fairly is hogwash, my recent experience with the city paper editor reminded me why this strategy is not only ineffective, but harmful. As writer Cheryl Strayed once put it, it’s not that there’s “a secret commission of readers and editors dedicated to the mission of keeping women writers down,” but “we live in a patriarchy, which means that everything we observe, desire, and consume is in some essential way informed by gender assumptions that privilege men.” As my own anecdote illustrates, women may be punished for asking for more, or for even any compensation at all.

There’s also the issue of what the industry does and doesn’t value, and how gender stereotyping plays into these judgements. Male writers are often favored for subject matters deemed “serious” (like crime, politics, and news), while women are often pigeonholed into writing about what’s been described as “pink topics” or the “four f’s”: fashion, family, food, and furniture. Women, and particularly mothers, are also often recruited to produce low-quality clickbait for content-farming mills, earning anywhere from $2 (yes, $2) to $25 per article.

As in many other industries, problems with inequity start at the top.

While women tend to dominate lower-ranking positions in publishing, it’s men who often occupy the top positions of power. Women represent just 35% of newspaper supervisors, for instance, and serve as top editors in just three of the nation’s 25 largest papers, eight of the 25 largest papers with circulations under 100,000, and three of the top 25 under 50,000. (The situation is even more dire for people of color; in one study, just 15% of participating organizations said at least one of their top three editors is a person of color.)

And — no surprise here — evidence indicates that the people making decisions about whose stories are worth publishing may favor stories about people like them. Studies in various industries have shown that men tend to favor hiring men (and women tend to favor hiring other women).

Solutions to these deeply ingrained problems are in some ways elusive — but there are some concrete changes the publishing industry can make to rid itself of gender inequality. Concerning compensation, studies have shown that transparent pay policies are effective in remedying pay inequities among women and people of color. All publications should include standard pay rates on their website or in their contributor guidelines. Transparent pay policies will benefit all writers and would go a long way in making fair pay a more easily realized norm in the publishing industry.

Publishers can also work to ensure more women and people of color can become decision-makers and occupy the top positions in the industry — although, it’s worth noting, women in positions of power is not a panacea. After the newspaper editor pulled my article, I forwarded the e-mail exchange to the editor-in-chief of the paper, a woman. She and I subsequently had a phone conversation in which I urged her to establish transparent pay policies and hold the editor (and all her staff) accountable for abusive behavior toward freelancers. She listened to my suggestions politely, but when I followed up with her for this article and asked if she had implemented any of my suggestions, all I got was silence. As of this writing, the paper’s website has not been updated with compensation policies of any sort.

So making more women editors-in-chiefs will not necessarily solve the problem of sexism in the publishing industry if those women do not value fairness and equality or are not willing or able to implement policies that reflect those values.

The problem at the root of all of this is that, like many industries, the publishing industry is composed of institutions that were built on capitalistic, patriarchal values that serve the dominant group (namely, white men) and exclude everyone else (women, people of color). Changing these institutions involves a reimagining of values and goals. We need to build an industry that recognizes the dignity and importance of writers’ work and understands that writing is not just a job, but a form of art through which ideas can spread that have the power to transform society. The stories we tell about the world are profoundly shaped by our experience of it, and allowing more men than women to tell their truth distorts reality and limits the range of ideas that make it into the public’s consciousness. Publishers who practice these values are currently few and far between, but they do exist and we should support these publications as much as possible.

Finally, we need to stop telling women that it is their responsibility to ensure they get treated fairly. No marginalized group ever got their fair share of anything by asking the group in power if they would please stop oppressing them. And as my story reveals, telling women to fight for themselves does not always work, and in fact can come with its own negative consequences. Sexism and unequal compensation (in the writing industry and elsewhere) are not individual problems that individual women can solve themselves by just saying the right things or bringing the right attitude to pay negotiations — they are collective problems that require collective action.

The part of my story that hurts me the most is remembering how I initially felt when I received the editor’s email pulling my piece. For about five seconds after reading it, I regretted asking about money. In those five seconds, I felt a desperate need to apologize for asking, in an effort to hopefully save my article. In those five seconds, the patriarchy came crashing down on me in full force and I was powerless to its ability to make me feel ashamed for speaking up.

Very quickly my regret turned to anger and indignation once I regained the rational consciousness in which I understood how unfairly I was being treated, but those five seconds will never go away, and thinking about that short period of time incites rage and despair. It’s in those momentary periods of self-doubt that a little part of us dies, and our defenses and willingness to fight the system that tells women and other marginalized groups to stand down are weakened. For those five seconds, the patriarchy won.

That’s how deeply ingrained these gendered commandments are — they become our automatic responses, even when we consciously reject such prescriptions.