Women’s Work Is Not Free Or Cut Rate

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.

Here’s something women need to stop doing to other women: We need to stop asking each other to lower our fees, cut our rates or work for free because we’re members of the same sex.

Many women donate our time and expertise, offering the gift of our energy to a group or a cause, on a regular basis. (Me? I’m right there for libraries, literacy groups, social justice groups and domestic violence prevention).

Just as men in leadership positions have always given back to the community once they’ve established themselves in it, many women are willing to participate in, volunteer with or offer support for special causes.

Certainly organizations can ask for a charitable gift; it’s what charitable organizations do.

But what about groups that are neither charities nor not-for-profits who ask women, and I’m focusing on women here; sorry guys, to work for little or no pay by issuing the request as a gender-specific invitation?

This request came pretty much right after Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced, at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, that women should trust “the system” and rely on “karma” to reward them financially, a statement that naturally caused waves of outright sustained and bitter laughter to emerge from women globally.

So you could see why companies with the best of intentions (or not) might want to encourage their female employees to feel welcome. Maybe the large company actually wanted its female employees to learn how to present their skills most effectively when asking for advancement. Hey, anything is possible.

Yet the woman inviting me to speak, who worked in human resources, saw no irony in explaining to me that the invitation would include lunch but not offer any sort of honorarium.

Isn’t that like saying, “We want you to teach an assertiveness-training class but we insist you do it exactly on our terms”?

Put it this way: Is it really helping women generally if we tell women individually that their work isn’t worth what they’re asking?

When writing this column, I asked other women about whether they’d had similar experiences. I had no idea there would be such a chorus, and such a diverse chorus.

I heard from three female clergy members.

I heard from a number of nurses, physicians and financial advisers who felt perpetually on-call.

Women writers, singers, musicians and artists (especially photographers) expressed their frustration at being asked to give, often at a cost to themselves, their time and talent for everything from gala fundraisers (at least one’s work gets attention, plus it’s for a good cause) to bridal showers of friends who’d been out of touch for years (one’s work gets taken for granted, plus you still have to order from the registry).

I heard from a disgruntled scrapbooker.

A newly minted divorce attorney who initially offered a sliding scale when dealing with clients explained: “My largesse has led to my feeling abused. It seems that when you don’t bill you give the green light for texts and phone calls at all hours of the day and night. … These same clients … most definitely play the gender card. There is a presumption that as a woman I am deeply invested in their individual situations … and that I should work free of charge.”

Yet I have hope, as always, for the future.

In her mid-20s, Caitlin O’Donnell, assistant to the president at Emmanuel College in Boston, understands that saying “Yes” to as many professional opportunities is crucial because young workers “need to get experience.” But O’Donnell also knows that saying “No, thanks” or “That’s not appropriate for my role” is equally important. She’s “been rewarded with raises and a promotion,” which is more useful than a wink and a pat on the head.

What’s most insidious about being asked to work for less or work for free is that it’s almost always women who are sent to do the asking. They wouldn’t let a guy do it because it would seem sexist and demeaning.

Why? Because it is sexist and demeaning.

This hypocritical gender provincialism isn’t helping any of us: In such ways do women become complicitous in our own undoing.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

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