Female creative freelancers charge 47% less than men. Who’s to blame?

Unscrupulous employers.

For over 55 years, that’s who’s been to blame for the gender pay gap.

Thousands of articles have been written directed to CEOs, hiring managers, and bosses about “How to close the pay gap” and not be a big fat jerk to women.

So, now, in 2019 with roughly 40% of the US workforce freelancing and setting their own prices, and no unscrupulous employer to hold us down, the gap should be closing.

The bad news? It’s getting worse. The good news? We now have a better handle on why…. And spoiler alert, it’s not those awful male bosses after all.

What we’re learning about the pay gap in freelancing

As creative freelancing has grown in the US, we’ve started to look at how people make a living with no steady paycheck. Freshbooks did a study in 2018 that showed men out earn women by 28% even when adjusted for business size and industry.

Harvard Business review has discovered that women are less likely to apply for jobs. And Hewlett Packard in an internal study found that women went for a promotion only if they met all the qualifications, where men would go for it when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.

This tracks with new research in the evolutionary psychology field. To oversimplify complex dynamics, in general, the research suggest men tend toward competition while women tend toward cooperation.

All this research is interesting, but I wanted to see if it tracked in my industry, freelance copywriting. So I partnered with 3 large copywriting communities to conduct a comprehensive survey of copywriting pricing trends.

The survey was not designed to specifically look at the pay gap, but by analyzing the demographic information of the 513 participants (62% female, 37% male, <1% nonbinary/other)… we found some interesting results.

We asked about 13 different project types, ranging from complex direct response packages like long-form sales letters, to pay-per-click ad copy, to content-heavy simpler tasks like blog posts.

Across the board, female copywriters were charging 47% less than their male counterparts or 53 cents for every dollar. For more sales-oriented projects the gap is bigger with females charging just 48 cents on the dollar. For content-heavier projects, the gap closed but is still significant with women charging 65 cents for every men’s dollar. For hourly consults and copy reviews, women charge just 42 cents on the male dollar.

It gets even more fascinating when you look at not just what women charge, but how they calculate their prices. Women are twice as likely than men to charge by the hour and overall, freelancers who charge by the hour make 42% less than those who charge by the project.

Women are also 3 times more likely to have a rate sheet publicly available on their website, essentially locking themselves into pricing and eliminating the opportunity to ask for more if circumstances warrant it. (Freelancers with public rate sheets charge 15% less than those who negotiate each project price privately… likely because rate sheets attract clients who price-match and view the work as a commodity rather than a specialized skill).

Now, looking at these numbers and that the majority of the survey participants were female, I wondered if the survey was self-selecting for the most experienced male copywriters which would account for the gap.

But what I found was surprising.

When adjusted for experience female copywriters with less than 2 years experience make 75 cents on the male dollar. As they gain more experience, the pay gap actually gets larger with female copywriters with 10+ years experience charging just 29 cents for every dollar their male counterpart charges.

My theory is this is because of the way raises (or price increases for freelancers) work. They aren’t linear, they’re exponential. Say two freelancers, Sally and Samuel start out both charging $1,000 for a sales letter. They decide to each increase their prices by 50% each year. The difference is, at year 3, Samuel gets a big win for a client and decides to add just $500 to his price mid-year. Look what happens in the chart below.

That $500 increase, over 10 years has ballooned into an $8,475 difference.

How men and women think about pricing

When asked to describe what negotiation was like, women picked metaphors like “going to the dentist.” while men picked “winning a ballgame.” according to one study.

Our survey also showed differences in the language around pricing. When asked the open-ended “What is your biggest challenge when it comes to pricing,” some common themes emerged like “not knowing what to charge” but the words used by men and women varied greatly.

Women were more likely to use the words Time, Confidence, Fair, Mindset, Passion, Fear, Skills while men used the words Deals, Competitive, Invest, ROI.

Men were also twice as likely to use the word “money,” which less than 2% of women used.

So what does this all mean?

One interpretation of this data is that the problem we tried to solve in the 1960’s is getting worse and that we need new legislation for how freelancers are paid. But I don’t think that will solve the problem.

For the past century, a lot of women’s rights conversation has been around how men are holding us back, but for me, it’s empowering to understand how our collaborative nature can lead to decisions around money.

What makes us great freelancers — willingness to compromise, genuine concern for our clients, and empathy for our market… also can be detrimental to negotiating prices.

I’ve put together a 7 Point Checklist for Price Setting for Creative Freelancers. These tips are applicable across genders but particularly relevant for females.

  1. Check your prices with both male and female mentors for perspective
  2. Charge by the project, not by the hour
  3. Increase your prices regularly as your skill level and experience grows
  4. Study negotiation strategies and prepare for each proposal (resist the urge to give the first price that pops into your head)
  5. Focus on the value you’re adding to the company, not on what you’re “costing” the company
  6. Compete or bid for a job even if you don’t meet every qualification listed.
  7. Communicate how you meet the requirements, not where you fall short

And, if you’re a female creative freelancer, consider doubling your prices today to make up for the money you’ve left on the table up until now. :-)


To get the full freelance pricing report when compiled, enter your email at freelancecoop.org.