The dark side of freelancing

Think freelancing creates a perfectly equal playing field? These survey results show otherwise.

(TLDR: There isn’t a lot of data about how inequality and discrimination affect freelancers. I’m trying to change that by running my own survey, which you can take here. Keep reading for a preliminary summary of the survey results.)

Freelancing is set to steamroll the U.S. workforce. A 2010 Intuit study predicted that by 2020, 40% of the U.S.workforce will be freelancing, and we’re already 34% of the working population.

Freelancing has a lot of upsides:

  • You can work in your underwear
  • You have more control over your hours and a more flexible schedule
  • You have somewhat more control over your earnings

But there are downsides. The popular narrative is that in freelancing, lifestyle businesses, and entrepreneurship, everyone can make their own way. If you just try hard enough, you can totally rake in the cash and reap all the benefits of freelancing, without any of the problems of a 9–5. Freelancing for everyone!

(Conveniently, this is usually coming from someone selling you their How to Be a Rockstar Ninja Guru Freelancer course for several hundred dollars.)

This narrative ignores a ginormous issue: not everyone is treated equally in the workforce.

Among other gender issues, the pay gap is well-documented, and is worse for women of color. Tech companies and startups are regularly criticized for a glaring lack of diversity. Women of color are doubly punished in the workforce, from being perceived as incompetent to being perceived as super-aggressive when they speak out. When women and minorities push for diversity in the workplace, they often take a career hit for it.

To expect that these issues won’t be a factor in freelancing is naïve at best and willfully misguided at worst. Sure, you can be your own boss — but that means you don’t have an HR department.

So, who do you report it to when one of your clients says something wildly bigoted to you?

  • If you call them out on social media, you risk being tsk-tsked about being unprofessional.
  • If you stay silent, other freelancers are going to have the same experiences.
  • If you bring it up with the client’s HR department (if they have one), they aren’t legally obligated to take action, since contractors aren’t covered under EEOC laws.* (Assuming that the issue would even be covered under those laws, given that it’s still legal to fire someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity in several states.)

I know it happens — I’ve seen it myself, and heard stories about companies abusing freelancers because they know they can get away with it.

Surely there’s some data we can use to contribute to this conversation, right?

The first step to solving a problem is becoming aware of the problem, and being able to show other people the concrete reality of the problem (even if we all know it’s there) is a huge part of that.

However, the data on freelancing is severely lacking. In my seven years of freelancing, I’ve only recently seen data on how freelancers are affected by the gender pay gap — and that was targeted to one specific subset of freelancers (those in media industries).

Ever since I read that article, I’ve been wondering why there isn’t more data on how other issues and conflicts in the workplace affect freelancers. So I decided to collect that data myself.

Right now, we’ve had a little over 130 responses. The survey is still up and will be for a while, but I went over the preliminary responses. Actually, I paid somebody who knows their way around Excel to do it, because I didn’t want to disturb my neighbors by screaming at my laptop.

A few quick notes before we dig in:

  • Most of the following data is looking at demographic factors (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) as standalone items. I totally understand they aren’t standalone in the real world (that women of color are treated differently than white women, for example).
  • I’m paying for data analysis as we go, and I can’t do a full analysis twice — which is why the single-factor analysis.
  • It’s also worth noting that because of the relatively small sample size (which also makes an intersectional analysis more difficult at the moment) that these are all tentative links.

All that said, here’s what stood out**:

Most freelancers get asked for discounts or free work…but some groups more than others.

Out of all freelancers surveyed, 52% said that a client had tried to get them to work for free. This is a relatively universal problem, with the “yes” answer ranging from 48–55% depending on the group (divided by race, gender, and sexuality).

That said, some groups get asked for discounts quite a bit more often than others:

  • 16% of the women surveyed said they’ve been asked for a discount of 50% or more (compared to 8% of men — so twice as many women as men)
Women/men and LGBQ/straight are two different data sets here, but I put them in one bar chart to save you from reading ONE MILLION BAR CHARTS
  • 23% of people who identified as LGBQ had requests for discounts of 50% or more, compared to 11% of straight respondents (over twice as many) [Wondering where the T is? I analyzed the responses of transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer people in a different set, as the differences were striking — see “Freelancing While Trans” below]
  • 22.2% of people of color surveyed said they’d had clients ask for a discount of 25–50%, compared to 13.5% of white respondents (a little over one and a half times as many)

Requests for revisions (or lack thereof)

Part of the inspiration for this project was that I’ve been on content teams where I can see the editorial review process for all other writers on the team. I can see that my male colleagues on the team have less edit/revision requests and generally undergo less scrutiny (and then have pieces with typos or errors, published, while my work is still on round four of edits). It’s been almost impossible to miss.

With that in mind, I asked my fellow freelancers about their revision requests, knowing that most freelance writers (and most freelancers on teams that use open tools, like Trello or Asana) can also see all sides of that process.

This is one place where being a n00b data collector probably shows (or where more in-depth analysis might come in handy, as these factors could be highly influenced by age, education level, etc.). Here’s the question and possible answers:

As far as gender goes…

  • About 10% of men and 5% of women said they feel like they get more requests for revisions compared to their peers.
  • But about 22% of men selected that they feel they get fewer requests for revisions, compared to 13% of women.

I’m not sure what to make of that. (ETA: Since publishing I’ve had a few people who took the survey say they interpreted it differently than I meant it — so I added some clarification in.)

Either way, the differences when it comes to other factors are striking:

  • 18.5% of people of color surveyed said that they feel their work is more harshly inspected than their peers, compared to 4.8% of white respondents (more than three times as many!)
  • 11.5% of LGBQ respondents said they feel they get more requests for revisions, compared to 6.5% of straight respondents (almost twice as many)

Abusive & threatening clients

As freelancers, we all have that one client horror story. However…there’s a difference between your run-of-the-mill shitty client and one that actually threatens you. For this question, people could select that they’d had clients insult them, professionally threaten them (“you’ll never work in this town again!”), emotionally threaten/blackmail them, or physically threaten them.

The patterns that showed up:

  • 53.8% of LGBQ respondents said they’d been insulted by clients, compared to 33.6% of straight respondents (a little over one and a half times as many)
  • 13% of women who responded said that they’ve been professionally threatened by clients, compared to 5.4% of male respondents (over twice as many women as men)
  • 8.1% of men said they’d been physically threatened, compared to 2.2% of women who responded (See note below in “Freelancing While Trans”; it’s also worth noting that there was a disproportionate amount of men of color compared to white men, among respondents, so there’s a possible link with race here)
  • 30.8% of LGBQ respondents said they’d been emotionally threatened or blackmailed, compared to 13% of straight respondents (a little over twice as many)
  • And 17.4% of women said they’d been emotionally threatened or blackmailed, compared to 10.8% of men (a little over one and a half times as many)

Freelancing while trans

This deserves a whole separate section because the results were so striking, even if we don’t have enough responses yet for anything definitive.

As far as the genderqueer, nonbinary, or transgender*** respondents went:

  • 60% said they feel that their work is more harshly inspected than their peers (compared to 15% of other respondents)
  • 80% have had clients emotionally blackmail them (compared to 17% of other respondents)
  • 20% have been physically threatened by clients (compared to 4% of other respondents)

Again, this is a small sample set within a small sample set. But when you look at how high the rates of violence are, in general, against transgender people (and specifically transgender women, who also had a disproportionately high “yes” rate to the physical violence question in the survey), is it any surprise that this affects freelancers, too?

It’s really not. And when you put those statistics together with the fact that, as mentioned, contractors often don’t have legal recourse****, the popular story that Freelancing Can Totes Be For Everyone seems even sillier than it already is.

A survey isn’t going to solve these problems…

…but having data to back up our anecdotes can make our argument in the fight for equal compensation and career treatment more compelling. It can give heft to our arguments and hopefully, start a serious conversation about how we can protect ourselves and our fellow freelancers.

Once we have more responses, I’ll put it all together and publish it in one spot, so anyone can draw from it at any time in their own articles/research/arguments/etc.

Interested in participating?

If you haven’t taken the survey yet and you’re interested in doing so, head here. After you take the survey, I’d love it if you could hit the heart below & share this on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else. The more people take the survey, the more comprehensive I can make the final report. Thank you!

Big thanks to Paul Maplesden for helping me out with the data analysis side of things.

*I haven’t been able to research this fully yet, but there may be exceptions in some states — however, on the national level, equal employment opportunity laws don’t apply to contractors.

**There was too much data to cover it all, so I didn’t mention something unless it was a difference of at least 1.5x or 2x.

***I know these aren’t necessarily the same thing, but the sample size was small enough that I had to combine them for the purposes of this data.

****And again, even if they weren’t contractors, gender identity and sexual orientation are not always a protected class, period. Which is pretty fucked up no matter what part of the workforce you’re in.