‘Pretend You’re a White Male’: Freelance Writing’s Gender Problem

By Lynsey Grosfield April 13th, 2016

If you’re a freelance writer, the majority of your editors are probably male and the majority of your colleagues are probably female. That’s not just an anecdotal generalization.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE)’s latest report showed that, on average, women make up only 37 percent of newsroom staffs and hold only 35 percent of supervisor roles. Yet women account for approximately 73 percent of journalism grads and constitute about 70 percent of enrollees in MFA programs in the U.S, according to a report from the Women’s Media Center.

As traditional salaried writing careers become rarer, both former newsroom staffers and journalistic greenhorns alike are diving in to the world of freelancing. For some it’s by choice, but for up to two-thirds, it’s circumstance.

For women, pushed to the margins of the media industry, freelancing is often the only way forward—and, not surprisingly, wages have come to reflect the gender gap.

The ‘pink collar’ sector

Though data is scarce, a 2012 “Freelance Industry Report” of over 50 professions found that 71 percent of freelancers were female. In other words, freelancing flips newsroom demographics on their head.

Despite the gender domination of freelancing, female freelancers working in the media sector may be experiencing a significant pay gap. According to a 2015 survey by the Writer’s Union of Canada, female writers earn only 55 percent of what their male counterparts make. That disparity is much worse than the estimated 77 cents on the dollar women earn in relation to men on the conventional labor market in the U.S (in Canada, the pay gap may be as low as 73 percent). Data about differences in the pay of freelancer writers in the U.S. is lacking, particularly since the Department of Labor hasn’t examined the state of independent contractors since 2005. The 2005 survey did, however, find a 42 percent pay gap between full-time male and female independent contractors, and a 35 percent pay gap among part-time independent contractors (see page 82 in the report).

“It is important to recognize that low-paid freelancing as women’s work is not a new phenomenon, but in fact, it can be traced to the late 19th century when women first entered the journalism workforce,” writes Errol Salamon, a Ph.D. student in communication studies at McGill University who has been exploring this phenomenon in his book Journalism in Crisis and in a series of articles on the Canadian Media Guild website. “The difference is that, today, more and more women have entered the workforce, and the low-paid ‘opportunities’ have expanded due to the explosion of online journalism in the mid-1990s.”

“Freelance writer” as a job title doesn’t just cover hard-hitting journalists. It also includes those who have braved the dreaded “content farm” sites, which often offer as little as $3.50 an article. Sites like Freelance Mom reveal an unsung writing workforce that is, according to journalist Andria Krewson in ReadWrite, “overwhelmingly women, often with children, often English majors or journalism students, looking for a way to do what they love and make a little money at it.”

Whether you call it the “pink collar sector,” “the glass ceiling,” “the wage penalty,” or being “nickel-and-dimed,” women are disproportionately herded into unstable, low-wage occupations. And even when they do break in to a male-dominated profession like professional writing, that profession subsequently becomes devalued.

What makes a wage gap?

Like the conventional wage gap, the cause of the apparent freelance wage gap likely stems from a variety of complex factors: from economics to differences in gender expectations to outright discrimination.

Making matters more difficult is the lack of transparency in the freelance marketplace. Many freelancers living outside of major cities like New York City and San Francisco may not have a lot of face-to-face contact with fellow freelance writers; most publications don’t list their standard article rates up-front; and aside from a few notable exceptions, most freelancers aren’t broadcasting their tax returns.

Jessica Scott-Reid—a globe-trotting freelance writer who has worked for Vice, The Wall Street Journal, and Canada’s National Postput it succinctly in an email: “I don’t really have any male freelance writer friends, so I am not sure if I am making less than them or not.”

Beyond a lack of financial transparency, part of the issue could be a well-documented “confidence gap.” An oft-quoted statistic from a Hewlett-Packard internal report states that men will apply for a job when they meet 60 percent of the position’s qualifications while women will seldom apply without meeting 100 percent of the criteria. Women are more prone to feeling “imposter syndrome,” a nagging irrational fear of being under-qualified.

This self-perception isn’t just paranoia, either. Novelist Catherine Nichols conducted an experiment in which she sent out book proposals under a male nom de plume, “George.” She sent out 50 queries, and under the name George her manuscript was requested 17 times, compared to two under her actual name. He was, in other words, “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.” What’s more, Nichols said publishers were kinder and more helpful to “George.”

Many female writers toy with the idea of a new moniker, depending on where they are pitching: Scott-Reid told me she has contemplated becoming “Scott Reid” when pitching to outdoor lifestyle magazines and sports outlets, wondering if “Scott” would be more likely to get a response and a byline.

Where female freelancers write—and where they don’t

Lifestyle writing is a field where women can perhaps feel more confident getting a paycheck, and a slew of “female-friendly” offshoots of mainstream publications—like the Daily Mail‘s Femail and Gawker’s Jezebel—provide a pink-hued platform for women’s writing.

In the Guardian, Lou Heinrich calls the explosion of news sections and new media publications targeted at women “pink ghettoes,” where topics like parenting, cooking, fashion, celebrity, beauty, body positivity, sex, and feminism dominate.

“By and large, amplifying women’s voices is positive and a step forward for the legitimization of feminine experience,” Heinrich wrote me in an email. “But to denigrate women writers only to women readers reinforces patriarchy: The idea that mainstream society is constructed by and for men.

Heinrich’s perception of the ghettoization of female writing and opinions matches mastheads. Although the gender split varies widely from publication to publication, editors and top columnists in the “big subjects” are overwhelmingly male, with politics (65 percent male), sports (95 to 99 percent male), literary criticism (53 to 78 percent male), movie reviews (70 to 82 percent male), and op-eds (75 to 85 percent male) being some of the more egregious examples.

As a female freelance writer, I’ll even cop to thinking it was a long shot pitching this very article to the four male editors here at The Freelancer. Though anecdotes are clearly different than established data, this is only the second time I’ve ever been hired by a male editor in a year of freelance writing.

Even with publications that specifically request submissions from women and minorities, men can still dominate. The Awl actively discourages white males from pitching in an effort to level the playing field, but even with the submissions set up as they are, a male editor who requested not to be named noted that “men still slightly outnumber women in pitches, and especially in more ambitious pitches.”

Brooke Binkowski, an editor at Snopes and a veteran freelance reporter on U.S.–Mexico border issues, told me that she often struggles with getting bylines on certain political and social issues.

“It has been really difficult for me to get traction on certain stories, particularly the ones that are ‘gritty,'” she said. “The ones that people are really into from me are stories about child sex trafficking and femicides. They are both worthy things to cover, but I can’t help but notice that they both involve women and children. When I have pitched other things—for example, workers’ uprisings and ensuing violence—I have been really hard-pressed to get responses.”

STEM subjects aren’t much better. The Science Byline Counting Project, an eight-month study from 2014, revealed that while men and women wrote comparable numbers of STEM stories (855 from women to 867 from men), men wrote 81 percent of features in Scientific American and 73 percent of features in Wired.

Even experts in journalism stories are overwhelmingly male.

In The New York Times, men are 3.4 times as likely to be quoted as sources than women are; on the whole, men are 76 percent of people featured in news stories. Whether that’s a result of a pervasive patriarchy where men tend to be in positions of power or from a tendency of male reporters and editors reach out to other male sources (or a combination of the two), the result is an even more skewed presentation of the news.

Paths forward

Despite the many challenges facing female freelancers, many have found that there are some perks to the freelance writing “workplace,” as it were.

“Working almost exclusively online or via phone has often made me feel more secure about pitching, interviewing, and other aspects of my work,” Scott-Reid said. “I worry that being a young-ish female writer with a sort of ‘girl next door’ appearance, if I had to face editors and subjects in person I would have a tougher time being taken seriously than I do when I get to present myself exclusively via my words.”

Her advice to female freelancers trying to get in the game?

“Let your professional manner of communication and high-quality writing do the work for you,” she said. “In other words, do the best job you can, own your work, and don’t give editors any reason to look at you differently than anyone else.”

Binkowski’s advice was much more blunt: “Pretend you’re a white male.”

Image by Getty Images
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