Know Thy Worth: how I’m fighting the gender pay gap

Asking for a token fee for on-air appearances, having the pay conversation and demanding equality – I’m getting on the earning curve, and here’s what I’m finding out!

Iona Bain

It was the moment that I knew things had to change.

Having done a rather taxing morning of radio interviews, I went to lunch in Soho with a PR executive. He was interested in booking me to do the same kind of job I had just done – a radio day.

This is how it works: firms wanting publicity will conduct research that (hopefully) throws up interesting talking points. Their PRs book a relevant “expert” to come into a studio and be interviewed on-air about the research. Mr or Mrs Expert speaks to different radio stations across the country, typically for about five minutes each.

As founder of the Young Money Blog, my views are in demand right now. I can talk about housing, student debt, incomes, budgeting…pretty much anything that touches on young whippersnappers and their finances. I’m happy if I’m getting paid, allowing me to keep the blog non-profit, but more importantly, I get the chance to air key messages about young personal finance that wouldn’t otherwise make the news agenda. Besides, radio stations want to talk to real young people, not corporate apparatchiks. The resulting item should be much livelier and legitimate that way, not just a shameless plug for a company buying its way onto the airwaves.

When I told my PR friend how much I charged for this work, he was surprised. “Just so you know, the market rate for a radio day is at least three times what you’ve been asking for.”

At that time, reports were emerging that the BBC – as well as other major broadcasters, media groups and companies across the country – have been underpaying female employees at all levels. Instinctively, I always suspected this was the case but the confluence of events (both personal and political) brought the reality home like never before.

It was a good job that I had nothing else planned that day – for all I wanted to do next was scream expletives into a pillow, tip my desk over ala Idris Elba in Luther and have a long, cold shower.

Luther: my spirit animal when it comes to pay rage

I felt incredulous, angry and foolish – although grateful, too, that my PR contact had been so honest where others had kept schtum.

Incredulous because I couldn’t believe that I had undercharged for a service that was (as it turns out) specialised and valuable. Angry because big, corporate clients were undoubtedly thrilled that I was such a cheap date. But foolish, above all else, because the only person who allowed this to happen was me.

And then…oh the horror! What if I had undercharged for ALL the work I had done in recent times? How did it reflect on my professionalism if I didn’t even know the market rates I should charge?

Since then, I have been determined to find out why I have been undercharging. Lacklustre female pay isn’t just about big business discriminating against mothers or shy women failing to demand a pay rise. According to the Office of National Statistics, self-employed men earn an average of £363 per week, while their female counterparts earned a third less at £243.

The gender pay gap is down to a complex combination of differing motivations, career paths and behaviour between men and women, caused largely by cultural conditioning. Women across the board tend to go into lower paid occupations and end up being more personally invested in their families than men. That’s one key reason why two thirds of people who work for themselves on a part time basis are women, compared with just one in five people who are full time self-employed.

And research by Citizens Advice suggests the majority don’t want to increase their hours, possibly accepting the trade-off in reduced pay so they can bring up children or look after relatives.

But if we encourage shared domestic responsibility among couples, we’ll not only see more balanced and healthier parents but happier children, benefiting from mums and dads being more present in their lives. Realistically, this will only happen once paternal and maternal benefits are equalised (and ideally, made more generous).

Alas, our current system incentivises parents to head back into full-time work as soon as possible to pay higher taxes before the eye-stabbing cost of childcare and numbing cultural convention forces mums to duck into part-time or self-employed work. This leaves guys to scoop up all the senior, time-sucking positions in companies that reward unrelenting presenteeism, rather than real results or imaginative collaboration. Male executives who never really see their children grow up and lack the well-rounded life that would make them better human beings is a common sight in the corporate world. So their sons and daughters take on this model and the rigid, totally unnecessary pattern continues down the generations.

As Philip Larkin said: “Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf…”

But what about the growing band of young, female entrepreneurs who don’t (yet) have children?

Like me?

I now believe we are in sweet spot – but only we can realise it. So long as we have strong ideas and plenty of drive, our earning power is theoretically limitless. And should we ever want children, we’re in a ready-made position to help them grow up with plenty of earned capital behind us.

We stand to benefit enormously from a new world order driven by technological change and a growing appreciation of diverse human capital. The internet has thrown out established ideas of career paths and success. It rewards flexibility and enterprise, providing an unparalleled marketing reach and infinite supply of networking opportunities to those who carp the diems.

It is a boon to self-employed women like me who started on one, very narrow career path (in my case, traditional journalism) and have found, over time, new markets for our skills and ideas. Companies are slowly grasping that they must embrace different perspectives and welcome different input or they will wither on the vine.

That open-mindedness, plus a general move towards employing external freelance workers is definitely to my advantage. My young, invariably feminine outlook on finance is now wanted in ways I never could have imagined. But this exciting new phase of my career has presented new problems (albeit nice ones). How do I value my work when I am new to these markets? How do I even know the appropriate rate for a role that nobody else does: speaking about young people and money?

There are no hard and fast rules. But I have some instigated some pretty major changes which are already proving fruitful. So here are some of the things I’m doing to improve my pay prospects – some of them may help you (whether you’re male or female, self-employed or in full-time work!)

  • On-air experts will be a new front in the gender pay gap battle at media organisations. Women within organisations like the BBC should continue fighting the good fight when it comes to ensuring they get equal pay for equal work. But the BBC is also committed to having a 50/50 split in gender when it comes to on-air experts, owing to an historical dominance of male contributors. I am increasingly asked to discuss my insights on TV and radio – while I love raising awareness of young people’s money problems, I was never offered even a token fee for this work until fairly recently. BBC Scotland led the way in proactively offering me a fee (and expenses if I have to get to a studio) and I now only speak to media outlets who are prepared to pay for my contribution. Often, a broadcaster will only offer a fee when I ask. But this is clearly wrong, a surreptitious way to get people on the cheap and it will inevitably punish women who are not as culturally primed as guys to demand greater pay. Many experts have traditionally been on the pay roll, with a specific remit to promote their organisations within the media, so this hasn’t been a problem until now. But unless we want PR men (and women) to dominate the airwaves, broadcasters must proactively offer fees to on-air female talent (especially if they are obviously self-employed).
  • Ask for equality. I am due to speak at a public event this summer alongside a (male) financial writer. In the past, I may have set a fee (probably a woefully low one) and left it at that. But on this occasion, I asked to be paid the same as the other contributor. Low and behold, the fee is higher than what I expected and it gave me an idea of the benchmark for similar opportunities in the future.
  • Do your homework. I started asking other people how much they charged for certain jobs, like speaking at conferences or doing video presenting. I couldn’t take all their quotes as gospel, as nobody was doing quite the same thang as me. But their ballpark figures gave me a far better idea of market rates, and made me confident that clients wouldn’t necessarily reject an estimate if they knew the price of fish. Anybody who didn’t want to pay market rates was not the king of crew I wanted to work with anyway – an easy process of elimination right from the off.
  • Ask what the budget is. ‘Nuff said.
  • Have the pay conversation. In the past, I dreaded the F word (fees, that is. A f***ing nightmare). I would spend hardly any time costing things and tend towards lower fees on every occasion. That might have been understandable in the early part of my career when I was establishing myself. But it would be terminal stupidity now: not only do I write the Young Money Blog (the clue’s in the name, duh!), but I’m determined to keep it non-profit to maintain its integrity, so there is double the reason to quote properly. I now spend some time researching the right price for my work, explaining my rationale and then discussing whether it’s too low or too high. Recently, a company wanting me to speak at their event was kind enough to up my fee. But would this have happened if I had just threw a bargain basement price at them? By saying I was keen to negotiate the fairest market rate for their event (even if I wasn’t sure what it was), I think they respected my honesty – or perhaps they knew they’d be bang to rights if I later found out they were underpaying me!
  • Finally, KNOW THY WORTH! I don’t ask to be paid 10 grand to get out of bed, ala Linda Evangelista. I still do plenty of pro bono work for charidee, appear on podcasts for free and (ahem) no adverts or guest posts here, m’lud! But the key difference today is that I no longer hide my light under a bushel and am wise to companies trying to squeeze a cheap deal from me because I am young and female. I am also now mindful of the potential conflict in agreeing to talk about women being more financially empowered while consenting to no pay. If we want women to become more financially-focused, we “female experts” have to up our game if we are to be consistent, logical and authentic. As someone who has worked hard and gained valued expertise, it is down to me to call the shots in my life. Now, I REALLY know what it means to value what I do…and I demand that others do the same. To accept anything less is just plain wrong.

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