According to a 2016 study, mums now account for 1 in 7 freelancers in the UK and, since the crash of 2008, the number of mums choosing to take up freelance work has gone up by 79%. Unsurprisingly my social media feeds are full of communities of these women, many of whom offer not only a glimpse into their working lives but also offer resources to help others start up on their own.
From the outset, let me say that so many of these accounts are doing excellent work; I’ve discovered some fantastic platforms and met some incredible women who are generous with their knowledge and who provide genuinely useful resources, both for free and for money. And I’m thrilled that many are making a decent living out of it too. Especially because the number of women starting and scaling their own businesses remains much lower than that of men, despite the higher numbers of self-employed women. Lack of confidence is often cited as a key reason, so seeing positive examples of women bossing it, leading their own businesses is crucial.
But, I’m also troubled by the way freelancing and self-employment are increasingly presented as the answer to all our problems: No more must we battle with the morning nursery drop-off and commute, miss out on nativity plays, or settle for earning only what is stated on our contracts. Instead, we can work around our families, with no limits on our earning potential provided we come to the desk with the right mindset. If we’re lucky, we can create passive income and watch the pounds roll in with minimal ongoing effort. In this picture the constant niggly, time-consuming admin of self-employment is swept away, out of sight.
Freelancing is not the feminist panacea.
And my god, it’s a seductive picture. I was definitely wooed by it all while on maternity leave, working out how I’d see my kid, pay the bills, advance my career and afford childcare.
But the reality is: freelancing can be brilliant. It can also be terrifying and it’s a hard slog.
Not everyone suits the unstructured nature of self-employment. Some will wilt without the constant buzz of a team. Not everyone will feel comfortable with an income that can fluctuate month to month. Hell, not everyone has the privilege of someone else paying the rent/mortgage while they take the plunge into precarity.
Even when you get to the point of freelancing paying your bills, there are still long-term financial implications which are so rarely talked about (except I talked about them here).
Freelancing is not the feminist panacea.
Who is more likely to cancel work when a kid is sick, do the washing up, arrange the electrician, and do all the childcare drop-offs? The flexible, freelancing parent or the one stuck in an office bringing home a reliable wage?
Most of the reasons why freelancing is so appealing for mums are structural and societal. If PAYE jobs were truly flexible, childcare was more affordable, and part-time hours less frowned upon fewer women would need to jump ship into the world of self-assessment and panic that your child won’t nap for long enough to meet a deadline.
Most of the reasons why freelancing is so appealing for mums are structural and societal.
In addition to the practical and feminist aspects of freelancing, I also want to discuss ethics. My work in the non-profit sector involves loads of conversations about ethics: doing effective work without compromise. And when I’m scrolling — particularly through Instagram — on my commute home, I often think about the lack of accountability. The blurred lines between friend/ advertiser and empowerment/ exploitation trouble me.
The ASA regulations which mean ads and gifts have to be properly identified has definitely improved things. But what about the marketing of whole careers and lifestyles to new parents? Those who talk only of the benefits of going it alone and who are seemingly happy to keep selling products to help others chase the dream?
It’s one thing to use social media to portray a fantasy lifestyle in order to flog a sweatshirt or a rug, but quite another to influence someone’s hopes, finances, and careers.
Because is there anything more emotive than the pull to provide for your children as well as to be fully present for them while doing it?
Guilt-ridden, time poor, and overwhelmed, new-ish mums are a vulnerable group and ripe for commercial exploitation. I know this because I was recently there myself, wondering how to balance career, childcare, and the finances. (After some tailored career coaching, I decided on a mix of part-time contract employment and freelancing was the best solution for me and my circumstances. I’ve also paid for a handful of resources myself, some of which were absolutely worthwhile).
Glossy photos and rosy captions of freelancing life need to be supplemented with honest conversation around the realities, privileges and politics involved in self-employment.
I’m definitely not saying everyone who talks about freelancing and/or feminism and/or empowerment and/or has paid-for materials is unethical. Social media is providing me with an incredible community full of brilliantly honest, insightful people who present the brilliant and brutal realities of freelancing and/or running your own business, and provide excellent resources.
People also definitely deserve to be compensated for their time and expertise. If there is an account you’re learning from then try to find ways to support them; if you can afford it, purchase some of their paid-for materials or see if they have a Ko-fi or Patreon account. Or if not, give them a shout out and share the love.
I’m also not pouring scorn on freelancing or on people who are trying to help others find a good work-life balance. But glossy photos and rosy captions of freelancing life need to be supplemented with honest conversation around the realities, privileges and politics involved in self-employment.
Ultimately, we need greater support and more diverse role models for female entrepreneurs, more honesty about the realities of running a business AND more fight around women in the workplace.
Inspired? Got something to say? Then join in the conversation on Instagram or in the DIFTK Facebook Community. And if you’d like to write your own piece, then get in touch. I would love to hear from you!