The title might be slightly misleading: I didn’t do it for you. I didn’t do it for me either. A more honest title could have been “Why the hell did I accept to be paid 35% less than a man?” and in this post I will be attempting to answer that question convincingly, addressing the thought process that brought me to accept a position for which I was going to be paid precisely 65% of my male predecessor.
There’s a tedious aspect to most debates on discrimination, and the debate on sexism is no exception: it is the endless arguing on where to place the blame. Is it the discriminator’s fault for discriminating, the victim’s for allowing themselves to be discriminated against or society’s for allowing discrimination to happen? I tend to side with the victim, but I have always been vocal about responding firmly to discrimination of any kind and not making it easier for the bad guys. The reason I think this aspect of the debate is tedious is not that it is useless (it is not), rather that it is impossible to negotiate. Each party either retreats into their own echo chamber, where they can be among identically-minded people and pat each other on the back, or jumps into savage and extenuating arguments in which nobody’s opinion budges by an inch, but everyone gets bashed on the head with the same arguments over and over again.
I confess to the sin of lounging in my echo chamber way more than it’s healthy and, having done that, I had come to the following conclusions. Sexist and greedy employers will, if given the opportunity, exploit their female (or non cis-male) workers’ need to keep their job, to not be unemployed, to keep paying their mortgage and providing for their families. However, when no such state of necessity exists, no self-respecting woman should ever accept anything but equal treatment and equal pay. After all, who is to stand up for our rights, if we don’t? And then, of course, I went and disregarded my own advice entirely, because this is just the kind of tricks we play on ourselves. Or maybe it’s just me. And now that plenty of water has flowed under plenty of bridges, I will attempt a post-mortem of that monumentally stupid decision, in the hope that it may help others not ignore the sign on the wall, particularly when the sign on the wall is a billboard the size of a double-decker flashing the words “DON’T DO THIS“.
A bit of background information for you: I lead a fairly privileged life. I am a freelancer, I am lucky enough to be able to get paid to do things that delight and interest me. I have a nice portfolio of steady clients with the occasional extra gig, which means I earn enough to live comfortably and to indulge in the odd splurge on opera tickets and electronic gadgets for the modern freelance writer. I have no mortgage to pay and no family to provide for. I can even afford the luxury of hand-picking my clients and never working for people I don’t like on projects I don’t believe in. In short, my existence is pure bliss with an extra side-order of sheer dumb luck. What I am trying to say, in my own flowery and convoluted way, is that I do not need money. I do not want for anything, I am fed and sheltered, I have spare time and hobbies, I do not crave luxury and I am debt-free – which, in this day and age, is saying something. I am where I always wanted to be and, most of all, I worked really hard for this.
What then possessed me to take on the worst gig of my life, I honestly can’t say.
I was sitting across from my potential client, surrounded by the paraphernalia of wealth and what some might be tempted to call grandeur, after having provided plenty of examples of the quality of my work – including a probation month without pay (I know, shush). I was perfectly aware that a male fellow freelancer had recently vacated that particular position and I knew exactly how much he had been charging. When the time came to discuss money, the man sitting on the other side of the desk, calmly offered me exactly 50% of that amount. I could not believe that was actually happening. Of course, I jumped quickly astride my feminist high-horse and threatened to leave there and then, pledging that the only reason I was not doing that was that this company came highly recommended.
Negotiation followed, during which I stated, unambiguously and rather sharply, that the offer itself was offensive and that we both knew that the sum being thrown on the table was barely worthy of a part-time, entry-level position, never mind a senior one. I proudly stated that allowing oneself to be undervalued and undercut is tantamount to openly inviting the world to do the same, and that’s not a mistake they would catch me making, no sir, not in a million years. My counterpart acted reasonably mortified. Not as someone would react if they were caught stealing from a charity say, or drowning kittens, but as someone who has inadvertently hurt another’s sensitivity. Bear this word in mind, we will get back to it. He assured me that he was sorry to have upset me and that he really couldn’t afford more than that (remember when I mentioned the paraphernalia of wealth? Are you thinking champagne and oysters? Think bigger) and that there would be benefits, based on performance (why should my entire fee, plus benefits, barely reach a man’s minimum fee for the exact same position?) and maybe that could be considered a starting fee, to be raised upon reassessment. This whole portion of the conversation took quite some time and it was a tug-of-war kind of situation, in which the company’s (alleged) needs were pulling in the opposite direction to my human and professional dignity.
I was not swayed. I stood solid as a rock and then… shoot myself in the foot. I stated categorically that I was going to make him an offer, a really good offer and that was non-negotiable. Pay attention now, because this is the bit I still don’t get and I’m hoping you might make sense of it. My irrevocable offer was as follows: 65% of my predecessor’s fee (I offered a figure, not a percentage, but it’s the percentage that’s relevant), to be raised to 85% after four months. He, unsurprisingly, accepted. And I even felt proud of my negotiating skills. Now, on a scale of one to Katie Hopkins, how disappointing is that from a feminist perspective? Let’s watch this train-wreck again in slow motion, shall we?
Step 1: I was offered 50% of what a male colleague had been earning for the same position.
Step 2: I rejected the offer and declared myself deeply offended
Step 3: I made a counteroffer raising my fee to 65% of my predecessor’s fee, to be raised to 85%. Not 100%. 85%.
Result: my client got to fill the vacant position saving 15% of his monthly expenses.
And now the burning question is: why did I do that? Why did I undermine myself? Why did I assume that I was not entitled to ask for the exact same starting fee as my male colleague, since I was going to do the exact same job? A certain amount of rationalisation went into it. For a few weeks, I told myself that I had done it for tax reasons, that I had rapidly calculated the increase on my taxes and decided to go for a lower tier, but that’s simply not true. Not only am I terrible at maths, at the time I had also no clear idea of how much I had made in the course of that year and how much I was going to have to pay. There’s no way I could have made that calculation off the top of my head. Also, I know that I didn’t do it, because I was there and I didn’t do it. That’s just what I told my friends and family (and, to an extent, myself), to escape the humiliation of having to admit that I did not dare be adamant about the fact that I deserved to be treated equally and to be paid as much as a man. I also told myself that it is only fair, in these very competitive times, that one should prove oneself before demanding money, which is not entirely untrue. But that does not explain why a man should be entitled to a higher fee before proving himself. It also does not explain why I came up with the idea of still earning 15% less than a man after proving myself.
After reaching our very disagreeable agreement, my client and I shook hands and he asked me if I was happy with our deal. I said I was. I lied, of course, and I barely slept that night. I was fuming and full of doubt. Had I been too sensitive? Was I being unreasonable? Was my response to his opening offer too emotional? I had spent the previous month actually doing the job he had just hired me to do and I had been certain I was going to be spectacularly good at it: why was I less sure of that now? I was trying to find reasonable answers, grasping at details of the individual tasks, ignoring an elephant of such colossal proportions that it was occupying the whole room, squishing me against the wall until I couldn’t breathe. And the elephant was holding in his trunk a sign saying “Is it really that easy to undermine your confidence?”. The answer on the flip-side of the sign, of course, being “hell yes”. I can almost feel generations of feminists coming to strangle me with their burning bras.
What do you expect happened next? I got the job. And I hated every second of it. From that moment on, I could never again find the enthusiasm I had felt when I had first applied for the position and during the probation month. That was partly due to the fact that I had discovered that sexism was not the only reason my client and I did not see eye to eye (other reasons include, but are not limited to, his firm conviction that “black people are simply not suited to certain jobs“), but because the whole experience was now poisoned. After failing to stand up for myself on that first occasion, I had established a precedent, which seemed to entitle my client to act like an old-fashioned caricature of an employer and cross all possible boundaries of reasonable work ethics. It was made clear from the start that I was dispensable, which meant I could be used to place the blame for someone else’s incompetence (particularly when said someone was a partner or client we were not willing to displease). As well as becoming the office’s whipping boy (just because the term “whipping girl” evokes quite a different scenario and “whipping non-gender-specific person” is frankly ridiculous), I was also being expected to devote my full-time attention to one client, despite the fee not being remotely high enough to justify that. And in case all of this was not bad enough, my job was offered to others behind my back on at least two occasions – that I know of. Why did I not protest? Because suddenly, for some reason, losing that gig or not having it renewed after the 4-month term was not only about the money (which was barely decent), it was about proving myself. It was about showing that, in spite of everything that was being thrown at me, I was going to be so exceedingly good that even my misogynistic, greedy client was going to admit that his company could not do without me.
And that, in a nutshell, is what you get from watching too many volleyball anime in the ’80s. Because that’s not how it works in the real world. Of course I was never going to excel at that job. No-one can excel at something they wake up in anguish over. Of course they were never going to acknowledge my value: our whole collaboration was based on a mutual agreement that my value was measurably lower than that of my predecessor. Of course I was never going to play an essential role in the history of that company: I hated it and everything it stood for. That first exchange, that initial deal I had been so ridiculously proud of, had tainted any hope for our professional collaboration of being anything other than hell for me and business as usual for them.
Let’s cut through to the happy ending, shall we? I was trudging through my average 16-hour workday, at a time of day when most normal people are making after dinner plans, and drawing up a report for one of my oldest and favourite clients. A friend asked me why I was working on that complex assignment as my last task of the day and I explained that it was because I had spent the day running digital errands for Nightmare Client from Hell. My friend asked the most natural question it was possible to ask: “You mean to say you are neglecting the people you have worked with for years, who have always valued your contribution, paid you handsomely and on time and treated you with respect and affection… for this guy who treats you like muck and pays you a pittance?” And I was forced to admit that yes, that was precisely what I was doing. Which is why, of course, when the time came to reassess our collaboration after its first term, I was the one to walk away.
It felt really weird to realise that I had been unconsciously slipping into a masochistic spiral, dreading the possibility that they could reject me or fire me, that they could deem the quality of my work poor and my demands for a raise unacceptable, and at the same time craving gratification from the same people whose power over me was founded in denying it. That’s the whole game. By calling into question something that should be a given (equal pay), my employer managed to dangle it like an enticing and exciting prospect, something I was willing to work twice as hard to get, while earning less. It’s not hard to see how convenient this is in the short run: the employer gets twice the productivity for a lower fee, while also getting away with the kind of misconduct that would kill any healthy collaboration on the spot. It may be slightly harder to see why this is not convenient, not even for the employer, in the long run: if the employee or freelancer they are subjecting to this treatment has a shred of dignity, they are unlikely to last long and, even if they do, they will never be committed. They might go the extra mile in terms of working late or at weekends, but they will never lend a hand when the company is going through a rough patch, they will never feel and behave like they have a vested interest in the company’s success and, most of all, they will jump ship as soon as something better comes along. Or, in my case, they will jump ship even if there is no new ship on which to jump. I was lucky, eventually, since just as I was handing in my resignation, something different, that involved working with people I actually like and respect, came along.
Have I managed to answer my original question? Why did I accept to be paid 35% less than a man? Because the mere prospect of someone offering to pay me less than a man made me question whether I had a right to equal pay in the first place. Because years of awareness and theoretical workplace feminism, apparently, were not enough to prepare me for the real thing. I’ll regard this experience as a sort of immunisation, a rite of passage that I will never have to go through again. If I do, please kick me in the shins and remind me how my priorities stand.
Thank you. You’re welcome.