• On paper, self-employment is the answer to better wages, creative freedom and an opportunity to make guilt-free life choices. But what's it like in reality? (MOODBOARD/AAP)Source: MOODBOARD/AAP
Freelancing should guarantee career freedom. But, says Neha Kale, entrepreneurship won’t let women control their own destiny unless we address the inequities that still plague the world of full-time work.
By
Neha Kale

9 Mar 2017 - 11:55 AM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2017 - 11:57 AM

There’s a moment when every working woman has the sinking realisation that the professional trajectory they’re taught to aspire to since they were gifted their first Barbie wasn’t designed for them.

For me, maybe it was the job that insisted on using war metaphors as motivational strategy, as if meeting targets in a poorly lit cubicle was akin to rallying troops in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was the collective eye rolls that greeted the colleague who rushed off at 4.30pm every day to pick up her toddler from child care. Or it could have been the boss that once referred to a press release as a “breast release” in a meeting, an example of wit that could spark envy in three-year-old boys around the world.

I’m just one among a growing percentage of women for whom self-employment is the best alternative to workplaces more interested in holding empowerment conferences and preaching about diversity than making changes that actually matter.

Soon, the evidence that women are still treated as outliers in the workplace, undervalued to the point at which they’re paid 20 per cent less than men in their position, according to 2016 figures from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, manifested itself as a voice that told me that instead of trying to make it in a culture that visibly denigrated female labour, it was wiser to get the hell out. Five years ago, the aforementioned boss fired me. I took the opportunity to go freelance and have never looked back. 

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I’m just one among a growing percentage of women for whom self-employment is the best alternative to workplaces more interested in holding empowerment conferences and preaching about diversity than making changes that actually matter — like clamping down on sexist wisecracks and paying women the same as men.

A 2015 study by the Freelancers Union discovered that women comprised 53 per cent of the US freelance workforce. A report in the same year from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that women made up a third of all Australian business owners, a quota that’s grown 46 per cent over the last 20 years.

Although women are increasingly sold the narrative that self-employment can work as an antidote to climbing the traditional career ladder, this doesn’t add up when you look at the facts.

And despite every patronising article about the rise of the ‘mumpreneur’, there’s something to be said about having the flexibility to work while your baby is asleep or turn down a project when your child falls sick  — especially given that a recent Paid Parental Leave Evaluation from the University of Queensland found that only 33 per cent of Australian mothers returned to the same pay conditions after returning to their job after giving birth.

On paper, self-employment is the answer to better wages, creative freedom and an opportunity to make guilt-free life choices. Who hasn’t fantasised about working at The Wing, the Manhattan co-working space that counts Tavi Gevinson and Lena Dunham as members, and whose pink-and-gold fit-out regularly sends Instagram into meltdown?

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Although women are increasingly sold the narrative that self-employment can work as an antidote to climbing the traditional career ladder, this doesn’t add up when you look at the facts. Yes, self-employed women can technically set the rates they deserve without angling for more money during those perpetually awkward performance reviews. Sadly, a 2014 study in The Guardian found that self-employed women in the UK earned nearly 40 percent less than self-employed men. The same year, research from Babson College, found that female entrepreneurs in the finance industry pay themselves less than their male cohorts, echoing the wage gap in the wider workplace. Could this have anything to do with the fact that that women are often penalised for that key entrepreneurial skill, the ability to ask for more money — despite what Lean In circles would have us believe?

There’s a moment when every working woman realises going it alone doesn’t beat a broken system.

If you’re a female founder of colour, the challenges of building a financially sustainable business are exacerbated by racial biases, but there’s no HR department to police discrimination or condemn inappropriate jokes. A February 2016 Techcrunch report found that businesses led by black women attracted only 0.2 per cent of funding by venture capitalists, despite multiplying by 322 per cent since 1997.

That we focus on women at the top of their professions rather than those involved in manual work such as cleaning or child care — even when they are technically entrepreneurial endeavours — expose the limits of this conversation.

There’s a moment when every working woman realises going it alone doesn’t beat a broken system. And even choices that seem feminist in the moment can seem less so after five years — unless we reject the notion that there’s an easy way out.

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