Why women should charge their salary ‘worth’

How a dog-sitting assignment taught me a valuable lesson about the gig economy

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Mar 7 · 5 min read
Photo credit: nattanan23/Pixabay

The gig economy is a strange market. Since you’re looking at most assignments on a project-by-project basis, you have to not only juggle one-time clients and long-term clients. You also have to figure out how much time it will take to do projects based on volume, due dates and difficulty level.

In Corporate America, you get $XX,XXX on the 15th and 30th, and there’s not a lot of hemming and hawing about it. For approximately 20 years, I watched my annual salary in the print news and online publishing industry continue to rise. Fortunately for me, I only went one rough year of 20 where my salary took a nose dive. And I stuck it out with that job for one full year and ended up with a $17K raise by year two when the company created a new business model. (Yes, I was stunned by that turnout, too. But start-up companies in the tech world have high-highs and low-lows.)

There have been a couple of jobs I’ve quit and one major layoff, but I always bounced back to the next job that paid me more. So you would think I would be an expert negotiator when it comes to salaries by now, correct? I was not. And oddly enough, it took a dog sitting job — of all the newspaper, magazine, blogging and web coding jobs my resume has on them — for me to finally get it right.

I’m still surprised dog sitting/boarding/walking is a real “job.” I did not take dog care seriously; it was something I would’ve initially done for $0.00. My condo association did not allow dogs, and I really wanted one. I said I’d walk one dog a week since owning a dog was a lost cause. But 456 walks and 12 dog boarding/sittings (not including repeat customers) one year later, this has clearly become a part-time job. Interestingly, I started off drastically undercharging for everything, specifically sittings.

One client listened to me talk about how often I walk each dog during the day, play with him/her outside, and all the treats and toys that I keep in stock to entertain them when it’s raining or cold outside. And she paused for awhile before asking me, “This is the rate you charge, but how much do you think you’re worth?”

I was speechless. Not one time in all of Corporate America had anyone ever asked me that, and for someone who was clearly going to have to reach into her bank account to pay me, this was new. I mumbled a price that was about one-third of standard rates. She nodded and said, “My husband would totally agree to those rates and be done with it. As a woman, I think you should charge what you actually think you’re worth instead.”

Photo credit: Sarah Pflug/Burst

Keep in mind that my mother had already told me I was undercharging my services. I ignored her. She’d been a manager at the same job for 35 years and held two jobs her entire life. I’d convinced myself that the Boomer Generation didn’t know what it was like working in today’s economy. It took a woman who was a client — and around my age — to make me really take that question seriously: “How much do you think you’re worth?”

We settled on a number, and I was much happier for the next eight days that I stayed in her home and befriended her dog. I’ve been hired by her multiple times ever since. The irony is another woman felt like my original (cheaper) price was too much, complained about it and chose a lower-priced sitter, only to have that person cancel and be forced to find alternatives twice. (Note: I ignored her requests. You fool me only once.) Although clients (and companies) have every right to pay whatever is in their budget, the cheaper rate doesn’t always guarantee a quality rate. I locked my prices for the “worth” client; she (and her husband) will never pay more because she challenged me in a way that benefited me clearly more than it would ever benefit her.

But the fact that this client asked me that made me wonder, “Why am I not charging my worth on all jobs?” I can’t count the number of times I’ve settled on a lower amount for a writing or editing project that I knew was worth more. Part of the problem is women historically make less than men, and then when you factor in how much black women make then it’s even lower. Still though, regardless of what the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds, to settle for less means you’ll always make less.

My luck in Corporate America was happenstance. I made absolutely no move in 20 years to ever ask for a raise or to explain why I was worth a particular rate. I just let the annual evaluation go by and settled for whatever the rate was. But in the gig economy, you simply cannot do that if you want your bills paid. Whether you’re working with one-time clients or regular clients, you must charge a reasonable rate for the work you are both qualified and willing to do.

After the “worth” question, I largely stopped accepting invitations for low-paying jobs with astronomical requests and mandatory unpaid “tests” that took anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to complete. (I also wondered whether every applicant was required to take these unpaid tests, and how much of it added up to several applicants doing the full job so the client never had to pay anyone.) I did that entirely too much in my first year as a full-time freelancer. Nowadays, I don’t take clients seriously unless they have verifiable accounts, actually understand what job they’re asking me to do, and/or have a track record of paying my rates— whether hourly or flat rate. Moving into year two, I have consistently found myself with superb regular clients, more consistent work and enjoying the assignments I’m doing — by charging my worth instead of charging whatever rate gets me hired.

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Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; part-time dog walker and dog sitter; Toastmasters member and 5x officer; WERQ dance and yoga enthusiast; Shamontiel.com

We Need to Talk

Let’s chat about my oddball thoughts on family, relationships and activism — with a dose of comedy, too.

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