For What It Is Worth

The Truth About Self-Employed/Freelance Women, And Their Rates & Fees

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

C.S. Sherin, Dec. 6, 2019

I love when people get right to the point, and so, that is what I am going to do. The following information is everything. It is the main point, which comes from a question about what something is worth…specifically when female freelance/self-employed professionals set the rates and fees.

So, you may wonder why self-employed/freelance professionals seem to “charge so much.” It is true that when you pay for services from an artisan, artist, trade specialist, editor, spiritual practitioner, or other self-employed or freelance professional — you pay for their specialization, and the value and quality of their service or product.

But why are some prices so high? The real reason for this is because self-employed professionals must pay for the following benefits themselves:

  • sick days
  • vacation/holidays
  • bonuses
  • healthcare/insurance
  • vision and dental care
  • retirement fund
  • maintaining or updating education/training
  • administrative tasks (non-billable hours)
  • travel

In addition to these, self-employed professionals also need to factor in business expenses against all profits:

  • hours of prep, design, PR, research, etc
  • taxes (social security, medicare, self-employment)
  • website/domain/email services
  • renting space
  • advertising
  • license fees
  • support services/consulting fees
  • business property taxes
  • work supplies & equipment (shipping, packaging, labels, software, third party apps)

Not all independent professionals will have every single one of those expenses, but many will. And, all of this, of course, is in addition to the responsibilities we all have: rent or mortgage, property taxes, costs of child care or pets, transportation, education (debt), food, clothing, and so on.

You see, many freelancers and self-employed folks are, in fact, talented people who are brave enough to administrate a business on their own, without a safety net. If they do it well, they are the stars of the circus, so to speak.

Yes, some independent professionals do overcharge and take advantage of others. Corruption is present in every profession and sector, unfortunately. However, it is important to understand — the majority of self-employed/freelance folks simply want to make a decent and honest living doing what they do best. There is zero greed behind most fees and rates. In fact, most self-employed people undercharge for their services!

Let’s look at some recent statistics and reports on this matter…

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2015, 7.4% of men were self-employed and 5.2% of women were. Also reported, self-employment is higher among White and Asian people, and lower among African American, Native American, and Hispanic people. (The study actually didn’t mention Native American people, and I hated that exclusion, so I changed it.)

In August of this year, The Pew Research Center reported that only 10% of the US work force is self-employed, though there are many unreported self-employed folks, they think. And, only about a quarter of known self-employed people (3.4 million) have employees of their own.

In October of this year, Forbes reported that in 2018 women received a severely neglectful “2.2% share of $130 billion given out in venture capital. And that was a $1 billion improvement over the prior year.” The article expands on how gender bias towards women inhibits funding for their small businesses. One detail given was how women are often asked personal questions, rather than questions focusing on their business during interviews for funding.

Lastly, a recent joint report by Thumbtack and Square stated that self-employed women end up earning more money. This is because, in “regular jobs,” women are often undervalued and underpaid. At the same time, the report shared that:

“Women small business owners are 5x more likely than men to have had their expertise questioned in all industries, and are 10x more likely than men to have had their expertise questioned in male-dominated industries.”

~ Thumbtack Journal (“Build Her Up”) and Square

This of course affects funding, word of mouth, and ultimate long-term success. In addition, the report shares that self-employed females will experience less workplace discrimination. (It goes without saying…)

Studies are reporting that being self-employed can improve women’s lives. This means that women of color, women leaving domestic violence, women veterans, LGBTQIA+ womyn, all sorts of women…who have talents that go unrecognized and undervalued by traditional means have a chance to improve theirs and others’ lives, work, and projects through self-employment…if they have support through local, regional and/or government funding and clients.

But funding and customers or clients won’t last if the business, service, or product doesn’t have real worth, use, and quality. And businesses of real worth and quality can’t last without support and recognition. And, of course, along with local support, funding, and tools and education for small business, the independent professional needs to have integrity, expertise, and reliability. So, yeah, it isn’t enough to decide to freelance and set a well-calculated price. A lot of preparation, education, practice, and time goes into becoming that expert, that artist, that consultant, that independent freelancer who can be so appreciated, needed, and valued.

At the same time, women, especially women of color, are not getting the support and votes of confidence (financial and community-wise) they need to become that independent professional that keeps going.

Alongside all of this, I can speak first-hand about one of the big challenges for the self-employed, which is affordable, accessible healthcare insurance. The first two years of the government’s Healthcare Marketplace coverage, for me, as a female self-employed professional was great. After that, it quickly became too expensive. Talk about prices being too high! Catastrophic insurance is a safety net, but far-flung from a desirable long-term solution. We need better solutions, that is for sure! But that is another article…back to the topic at hand…

Working for yourself can be viewed as the easy life, but really, it is more likely to be that you are overworked and underpaid when working for yourself. And when you work from home most of the time, like I do, that means that it is possible to work 18–20 hour days between what needs to be done at home and work.

That is, until you realize that you are your own boss, and so you are responsible for balance, health, income, and morale of the business…and that it is all you. A good friend of mine is also self-employed part of the year, and she helped me a lot in realizing that I am my own boss, and what kind of boss am I? Will I be a good boss? Will I be kind? Will I be merciless? I’ve found that I can be all of those. This is a compass of awareness that keeps me steady.

When you are the boss, worker, and administrator, it is way too easy to work over-time and endlessly, with passion and eagerness to make a difference and provide the best for you and your clients. That is the double-edged sword of doing what you are good at, and doing what you love!

When I was first beginning as a self-employed professional, many years ago, I was more than willing to be underpaid. I was even enthusiastic about it! I wanted to meet people where they were, and still provide amazing services. For the most part, people were fair with me when I gave them that trust. But, undercharging was not long-term sustainable.

The Thumbtack-Square report supports this experience, stating that both male and female independent professionals have to undercharge for their services in order to build a clientele in the beginning. And most people with “regular jobs” that have benefits or not, can probably relate to this since fair wages equal to inflation are near to non-existent in our country in general.

As I started to gain confidence, I took a small business class and later a few sessions of tutoring from the local University’s small business program. Through that, I learned about all of the hidden costs to self-employment, crafting a business plan, and how all of that leads to the fees that you see when you approach a self-employed individual for specialized services. I also learned that women are less likely to ask for money, start a business, or take financial risks.

After that, I started charging more appropriate fees for my services. Overall, it went well. Loyal clients valued my services and didn’t mind paying more. But there were some bumps too. The reactions ranged from shock and distaste…to flat out judgement. These reactions were from women who were able to pay the fee without strain, and who knew me personally, outside of my profession. To be clear, back then I wasn’t raising my rate by hundreds of dollars or anything, it was only an increase of $20!

Being an artist, writer/author, editor, publisher, and holistic spiritual practitioner…I have had ample opportunities to come face to face with the preconceived notions of value and worth placed on the services, projects, and products provided by women.

Women have been subjected to this mindset at a deep level, and the problem is, too many women: believe it, don’t question it, apologize for wanting fair payment, or don’t even want to ask to be paid! I have watched absolute expert superstar women tell me about clients not paying them, and how they did nothing. Why? Because they felt bad, uncomfortable, ashamed, confused — you name it. Women are often taught to resist being bold and straightforward. Why? Because they are then seen as demanding and pushy.

In witnessing this kind of dynamic, I learned quickly to ask to be paid, kindly — with normality, and without apology.

I mean, think about this… Imagine if someone had a pop-up shop at a store, and they were selling homemade gourmet cookies. Someone walks up and says they’ll have three, takes them, and walks away without paying. Not only is that illegal, it is unjustifiable. Now imagine the cookie artisan person asking that thief for payment, but apologizing for asking. Yes, it’s completely bananas, I know. Yet this happens. And women too often struggle to deal with it. I know, because it has happened to me, and to my friends who are also independent professionals.

In time, in engaging in conversation, later, with some of the women that balked at my $20 increase in fee back then, I found that they were also learning about their worth and the worth of others, and it was a growing edge for them. They expressed that they had realized the need for fair payment, and that the region we live in isn’t too hospitable to that — favoring corporations and organizations instead. Others, I didn’t get to talk to, and I simply wrote it up as their issue, not mine.

In retrospect, I know and appreciate that we women all have mental and emotional hurdles to overcome due to systemic bias and discrimination. For LGBTQIA+, Hispanic, Native American, and Black women that is on top of any other personal challenges and levels of discrimination and bias they experience.
Because of this, it is important for us to become more aware of these hidden issues, needs, and dynamics, so that we don’t perpetuate the problem for ourselves and others.

Yes, some women (and men) take advantage of others, and charge too much…even exploit sectors of business out of greed. I have been totally grossed out by some of the exploitative prices in certain fields of work that I have specialized in. I have been totally grossed out by those that make money the object, rather than the relationships, quality, outcome, and expertise. Still, they are not the majority! Please remember this when you look at services and fees listed by freelance/self-employed women.

Nowadays, I like to take a logical approach: this is what it costs to provide this service and maintain this small business. Period. End of sentence. We can tailor that cost to suit your needs. I can even give you a deal, but I cannot, logically or responsibly, work for you at a rate that will put me in debt by the end of the day, week, month, or year. It makes no sense.

I once had a speaking engagement where I let the hosts know my rate, and that I would be donating products for the crowd, valued at more than I would be paid. I was surprised to see them, at the beginning of the event, taking donations rather than a set admission cost, to cover my speaking fee, and to donate to a designated charity of the audience’s choice. Afterwards, the host said they didn’t make enough from the event, and asked if I would like to donate my fee to the charity that was chosen. I was shocked, and explained that the products I had donated for the night had already far exceeded the amount of my speaking fee (by hundreds), which they knew. The host reluctantly gave me an amount of money, less than what I had stated as my rate.

This was a tough experience for me, because the host was someone I had trusted. Sadly, it was clear to me, from that and other instances, that our needs and goals were no longer compatible. As much as I was disappointed, I moved on, realizing that it is more important to maintain what is sustainable for me, rather than caving to unreasonable and ongoing requests that put my livelihood at stake. It’s just one story of a million for women who put themselves out there. Well, in the freelance world it happens to both men and women, but it can be, and is, harder for women in many ways.

So, lessons learned! If your rate isn’t sustainable for me, it’s a fact, and we can move on in peace and mutual respect. I certainly won’t hold a grudge. Even with people who have tried to take advantage of my kindness, I won’t hold a grudge. It isn’t worth the energy. Best to move on, and make room to connect with those with compatible goals. Onward and upward!

So, the next time you are shocked by the rates and fees listed by an independent professional, please take into consideration all the hidden expenses that freelancers and the self-employed must plan for. Remember that we self-employed/freelancers most often have no safety net, and think long and hard about how to charge, and when not to.

Also, consider how much you would spend on other professionals, such as: an electrician, plumber, roofer, spa, or salon. And, remember how much money you usually spend on entertainment, fun items, holiday decor, and unnecessary food items. Then, consider the value vs. cost of a business relationship with a self-employed professional (whether they are an artist, writer, editor, consultant, advisor, artisan, or whatever), and how their services can truly make a positive difference for you, when given the chance.

Most of all, please do give us freelancers and self-employed professionals, and our fees, the benefit of the doubt. Most of us are worthy of your trust.

Look closely at what unique super powers we may have that can enhance your life, work, and project as the deciding factor — instead of jumping to conclusions about, and judging fees, without learning more. At least inquire, if you are seriously interested, and the fees are all that is stopping you. In most cases, independent professionals are willing to work within your budget (within reason).

The added bonus is that you can count on a personal touch from an individual who: deeply appreciates the business and the opportunity to exceed your expectations; and who seeks to forge a positive, mutually beneficial, ongoing business relationship with you. Win-win.


This article was previously published by C.S. Sherin, December 5, 2019 on Medium.com.

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