Around the time I started freelance writing, I landed what I thought was a really big fee. (The piece ended up being a nightmare to research and by the end I thought I’d earned every cent, but that’s another story.) I was thrilled at earning so much, until I received an email of sheepish apology from my editor. What on earth was she apologising for? She was sorry that she didn’t have the budget to pay me very much.
On the one hand, this is a cute little anecdote about how it’s all relative, especially when it comes to money and you’re new to an industry. But I’m also concerned with the social conditioning – particularly the gendered social conditioning! – that informs what one can expect to be paid.
Writing largely isn’t considered to be worth very much money, and there’s a rise of models in which writers are expected to be happy with the recognition that comes with a byline rather than any cold hard cash. Sadly, I can sympathise sometimes: it’s just typing whatever comes out of your head, right? It’s not real work, surely? Except, writing is real work: it takes planning, lots of practice, discipline, research skills and the development of a thousand new intellectual muscles one was never aware of having. Writing shapes how we go about our lives and engage with the world. The area of writing with which I primarily engage, social justice, eases up people’s lives and sparks and furthers campaigns. Writing is important work, vitally so.
And I can’t help but notice that the underpayment of freelance work is gendered. For a start, it’s hard to get any kind of concrete data on what freelancers are paid. Add to this the social pressure on women to value their skills, time, and work less and we have a mess on our hands. We’re taught to devalue our opinions and to never be pushy, where the precise opposite is needed to get any kind of traction with editors. If it’s that hard for women to convince themselves to approach editors at all, how much harder to ask for a decent fee, let alone figure out what one’s writing is actually worth in market terms!
It’s not just a gendered matter on the writers’ side, however. Writing largely on social justice issues as I do, I notice a pretty stark difference between mainstream and specifically social justice-oriented publications. Namely, the latter don’t have money. They’d like to pay their writers more for pieces on misogyny in politics and film and what have you, but they can’t afford to, struggling along in their ethical and indie ways as they are. Writing as a woman doesn’t generally pay well, and writing about women certainly doesn’t.
I’m lucky enough to be able to set my own hours and afford to write for less money if it’s for, say, a non-profit the cause of which I believe in. That’s a kind of trade-off I judge as reasonable: if I’m getting paid less, or nothing, but getting my byline in a large publication that will lead to more work, or if I’m considering some of my time and effort donated to a cause I like, I think the benefits are worth the loss of immediate or material profits. The trick is to make sure that I really am making a trade-off rather than an instance of me being happy to receive less money because I don’t think what I’m doing is worth the money.
Personally, I struggle with that. I’m finally making myself stick to rates I think are relatively decent. While it’s really tempting to cut that right back, I should put my freelancing money where my mouth is. If I really believe in what I’m advocating, and if I really believe that women deserve compensation for their work, then I should enforce that for myself quite as much as for anybody else.