Freelancing is feminist.
Or, at least, an increasing number of women think it can be.
In a study last year of nearly 2,000 freelancers commissioned by Freelancers Union and conducted by the independent research firm Edelman Berland, we found an important, surprising piece of data: A clear majority of full-time freelancers–53%–are women. That’s significant when you consider that 53 million Americans do some kind of freelance work.
So why are more women drawn to freelancing? And, more importantly, what lessons can we learn from their choices?
I think most women would agree that the traditional work structure just isn’t working well for them–the 40-plus-hour work weeks, the clubby meetings, the yawning disparities in pay and opportunities.
Even more than our male counterparts, our lives play out in stages that don’t fit well with a corporate world dominated by men. By our 30s, many women are starting families and struggling with taking time away from the office. By our forties, we’re often hitting the glass ceiling in terms of pay and promotions. By our fifties and sixties, unfortunately, we’re often being ignored altogether.
Freelancing can offer an escape from that thankless grind.
The study found women are far more likely than men (71% vs. 51%) to freelance in order to pick up extra money, underscoring the persistence of the wage gap. They were also more likely to freelance to have schedule flexibility (58% of women vs. 43% of men) and to “have independence from such things as office dynamics” (40% vs. 26%).
Moreover, unlike the traditional salaryman who derives much of his life’s meaning from the size and origin of his paycheck, women tend to be more comfortable maintaining diverse work and personal identities. And they recognize that the old way of doing this is over and gone–and that old way was never designed to work for most women to begin with.
That’s not to say that freelancing is easy. Talk to any independent worker, and she’ll tell you that the constant hustle and uncertainty can be exhausting. Benefits like paid maternity leave and health insurance have become luxuries (though that’s the case in many traditional 9-to-5 jobs these days, too).
To counter those challenges, though, many women are building truly amazing support networks. The collaborations range from listservs and networking groups to communal resources like pooled childcare and office shares. The Hera Hub, a women-only coworking space with locations in California and Washington, D.C., offers not just Wi-Fi but also workshops, meet-and-greets, and social outings. “No corporate ladder!” the founder, Felena Hanson, declares in a video for prospective members, remembering her own discomfort with intra-office jockeying.
And it seems to be working. A recent study by the freelance placement service People Per Hour found female freelancers were securing the majority of the gigs on the platform (58%) while earning up to 22% more per hour than their male counterparts.
This generation of women freelance workers represents transformative change. Reacting to economic pressures and the ill-fitting office culture around them, they’ve struck out on their own. They’re harnessing technology to focus on work that they find rewarding, on a schedule that fits their lives, and on terms that dignify them as vital contributors to our economy. In essence, they’re living the future now. We’d be smart to figure out new and meaningful ways to support them.