Why Low Self-Worth Drives Lower Wages for Women Freelancers — and What You Can Do About It

Summary: This week's training episode, written by my good friend and colleague Dianna Huff, is one of the most important we've ever published at the Academy. It addresses the elephant in the room everyone has been ignoring for years

2012 Freelance Industry ReportEd Gandia’s 2012 Freelance Industry Report has some interesting data pertaining to women and money.

For instance, female freelancers earn more per hour than do their male counterparts at almost every rate level from $20 to $59. And, at $60 to $99 per hour, men and women are just about equal.

But as soon as you get to the $100, $150 and $200+ per hour ranges, men are consistently outearning women.

Ed believed he knew why — but he needed a woman to tell the story.

I am that story. Yes, I’m in the $200+ per-hour range now, but I struggled for years to get there and couldn’t figure out why men — with less experience — were making a whole lot more money than I was.

What was I doing wrong? I knew it wasn’t because I dumb or lazy.

It took me awhile to figure it out. It’s because I undervalued my experience and skills. I believed I was worth less because I was a mom who worked from home — one who didn’t “need” the money. And, I bought into negative beliefs and lack thinking.

This article is about the elephant in the room that none of us want to talk about — namely, that we women earn less due to our own fears, lack of money knowledge and low self-worth.

Women Begin Their Careers With Lower Salaries — and Never Catch Up

I started my business in 1998. I already knew quite a bit about how to run it because I had been a business manager for a small manufacturing firm for seven years.

I knew the ins and outs of doing my own payroll and paying taxes, ordering supplies, invoicing and even getting clients. And, because I had worked corporate marcom, I knew all about marketing.
What I didn’t know was how to charge for my services.

When I started, I had just quit my corporate job where I had been making $42,000 a year complete with two weeks of vacation, full medical insurance, and other perks.

Since I was now working from home part-time and had lower expenses, I determined that I only needed to make half of that $42,000. So, I made that my goal the first year — to bring in $21,000.

The problem? Women, I’m afraid to say, make less then men even for the same jobs. Because I was in the “pink collar ghetto,” my salary was already very low. Of course, when I was offered the job, I didn’t think to negotiate for a higher salary. I just took what they gave me. I thought I was lucky to have it! (More on that later.)

So by cutting in half my already low salary, I set myself up for poverty wages. In addition to paying for household expenses, that $21,000 also had to cover my business expenses.

The first few years in business, I was miserable. My low point came when a client hired me to write a sales letter for a very high-tech product. That letter cost him $165 because I was charging by the hour. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “something isn’t right here.”

And so started my journey on how to increase my earnings. I spent years reading books and doing the exercises. My income did increase — how could it not with all that work! — but I couldn’t reach the level at which I knew I could and should be earning.

The problem, I know now, is because I approached earning money from the female perspective.

In her book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You're Worth, Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski talks about her own challenges with earning a salary that matched her experience and worth.

For many years, Mika’s co-host Joe Scarborough made 15 times what Mika made. Why the discrepancy? Mika didn’t know her value — and thus worked mega hours at a freelancer’s wage.

Like me, she made the classic mistake of taking a low starting salary — and then spent the next few years clawing and fighting her way to a better one. It wasn’t easy.

Since reading her book (twice!) and recommending it to many women, I’ve come to see the same problems Mika experienced in my own life and in other women’s. When it comes to underearning, women, especially women freelancers, make these three very huge mistakes.

Mistake #1 — We Undervalue Our Experience

A couple of years into my business, I discovered Bob Bly’s book, How to Make $85,000 a Year Copywriting. This book was a lifesaver for me because in it, Bob listed his fees for many of the same types of projects I was doing.

I could see immediately that I need to do two things: change from hourly to project fees (which I did) and raise my rates.

But again, I made a huge mistake. Instead of setting my project fees to match Bob’s, which were quite nice, I made them lower. Why? I determined I wasn’t “qualified enough” to charge those fees.

I can still hear my thought process to this day . . .”Well, I’m not Bob Bly. I haven’t written dozens of books. I don’t do direct response. I don’t have a track record. I can’t charge what he’s charging. So I’ll charge 50% of what he’s charging.”

Yep. That’s what I did. This despite the fact that I was perfectly able to write just about anything for high-tech and manufacturing companies and do an excellent job at it, too.

I know now that what I did is a typical female response. And I’m not the only one who does this. In my travels, I’ve met lots of really smart, really bright women who charge peanuts. Why? Some of the reasons I’ve heard are:

“I don’t have the experience.”

“I just need pin money.” (“Pin money” refers to the household “allowance” men gave their wives upon marriage. It was spent on small household items or personal adornment. That alone should be a clue to rethink why you’re in business if you’re working for “pin money.”)

“I’m lacking awards and things.” (Yes, a woman actually said that to me.)

“The going rate in my industry is .10 cents a word. That’s all I can get.”

Undervaluing our skills and experience is probably the biggest mistake we women make when it comes to setting our fees as consultants and freelancers. Why do we sell ourselves short? I think it’s due to this next mistake.

Mistake #2 — We Consider Ourselves So LUCKY

In her book, Mika interviews a number of high-powered women about money, the mistakes they’ve made and the lessons learned.

The one phrase I kept seeing over and over in those interviews was, “I am so lucky to have . . .” a flexible job, a great position, a good salary, health insurance, the ability to attend a child’s Halloween parade, [fill in the blank].

If you’re a mom and you work at home, you know what I’m talking about. You feel soooo grateful to be able to work from home and be with your children. I know. I’ve been there.

Working from home gave me the best of both worlds. I got to work, and I got to be with my son.

That’s what I’d tell myself over the years when I learned that men doing the same type of work as I were making a lot more money. “Stop complaining,” I would tell myself. “You’re lucky to be home.”

But deep down, I was really resentful. I remember when I first met Ed Gandia. He was in the process of launching his freelance business, and he asked me if it were possible to make $100,000 a year copywriting. I laughed. I wasn’t making that much money.

Ed hit the $100,000 mark at about the same time I did. It took him two or so years to get there after starting his business. It took me eight.

I was so lucky! Oy.

Mistake #3: We Buy Into Lack Thinking

I hate to say this but it’s a truth — we women are sometimes incredibly nasty when it comes to judging our fellow sisters. (This is something Mika discusses in her book, too.)

We judge each other on how much time we spend with our kids, who brings the home-baked versus store bought goodies to the class party, and whose kid shows up in the lovingly made-from-scratch costume at Halloween.

We also judge each other on how much money we spend on ourselves. If we spend on ourselves, we’re not putting our children first (baaaaad). Don’t believe me? Just watch What Not to Wear and listen to the women explain why they stopped buying clothes for themselves.

I would read those articles about how you didn’t need a wardrobe, manicured nails or good shoes when you worked at home. I read articles and books about how to pinch pennies, cut costs and live on the cheap. (I don’t think men ever read these books.)

And boy, did I take this advice to heart. By the time I began working with an image consultant in 2009, I was still wearing to client meetings the slacks, shoes, and blouses I wore in the mid-1990s! I can remember showing up at one client meeting wearing a scarf to hide a hole in my sweater — because I believed I couldn’t afford to buy myself a new one.

No wonder I wasn’t making more money!
If you’re not earning the money you want, take a look at YOU. It’s easy to blame your lackluster earnings on the economy, clients who won’t pay, the fact that it’s a man’s world, or that in your industry you can only charge certain rates.

If you want to earn more money, here are three steps you can take (you can do lots more, but I don’t have the space to list them out):

1. Determine your worth

It’s easy to look at the Freelance Industry Report and other similar sources and determine that yes, you’re making “enough” if you fall in the middle or high end of the range. After all, as one woman said to me, “You know, $100 dollars an hour is a lot of money.”

Yes, it is, IF you believe you don’t “need” the money because your husband brings home a good salary or you’re able to live on less due to penny pinching (that’s what’s referred to as noble poverty).

Charging what you’re worth, however, has absolutely nothing to do with what other people charge, how cheaply you can live or what your husband makes.

Charging what you’re worth has everything to do with your skills, your experience and the value you provide to your clients.

Take a pause and go back and read those two statements again.

It doesn’t matter if your husband or partner pulls in a cool million or you’re a trust fund baby. If you have the skills and experience, you charge what you’re worth. Period.

How do you determine your worth? Take a good long look at the work you do to see how you help improve your clients’ bottom line or their business in general.

Also look at the skills and experience you bring to the table: what makes you unique or different? What skills do you have that aid you in your work? Are you showcasing those skills?

For me, these skills include my intuition and sensitivity. These are my “female” gifts, which I devalued my entire adult life — but they’re what make me great at what I do. Once I figured this out, I was able to place a higher value on them — which made it much easier to raise my fees.

2. Charge What You’re Worth

It really bothers me when I hear women say, “I can’t charge any more than what I do. That’s the going rate.” Usually the going rate is something absurd -- .10 cents a word to translate or to write a blog post, $8.00 an hour for virtual assistant work.

I used to pay my babysitter $6 - $8 dollars an hour — and she was in high school. You, with your degrees, experiences, skills and expertise are worth way more than babysitter wages.

As prosperity guru Randy Gage says, prosperity is a value for value exchange. If you have a low value of yourself, you’re basically lowering the value of your work — and you get low value in return.

If you’ve done your homework from Step One, you now know what you’re worth and how your work helps companies’ bottom lines and overall performance.

This is where it gets hard, however. Maybe what you’re worth is more — much more — than the “going rate.” You can already hear the voice in your head, “I can’t charge that! No one will hire me.”

If you have the experience and skills, face your fears and charge your new fees.

Here’s what will happen: some prospects won’t be able to afford you. But others will. Instead of having six clients at your low fees, you’ll have two clients at your new higher fees — clients who will VALUE you.

And let me tell you, that is really nice place to be.

3. Raise Your Rates -- Regularly.

In her book, Mika talks about how Joe would have knock down fights with NBC brass to get a higher salary for his work. (Mika, however, continued to struggle along at slave wages.)

Men, for some reason, have something in their DNA that gets them to ask for more money anytime they’re asked to do something new. Women don’t.

You learn quite a bit in the course of a year. If you’re like me, you read everything. Maybe you attend a conference or two or a few workshops. And, you learn while on the job. You take on new projects that stretch you a little bit — or a lot.

All of this growth means you have more worth — and that you’re worth more. So raise your fees. Regularly.

If you lose a client or two, that’s ok. It just means you’re making room for new clients — the ones who will give you gigs that will help you grow and change even more.

What’s your experience with charging what you’re worth? Please share your stories. The more we talk about this important topic, the more we all benefit.

Dianna Huff, President of Huff Industrial Marketing, Inc., is also the author of Cash Flow for Freelancers, a guide for freelancers and their variable income. You can hear Dianna's interview at Ed Gandia's High Income Business Writing Podcast.




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  • Julie Kim

    Thank you

  • Taylor O’Shea

    Great article! I have been guilty of this myself and have learned some hard lessons over the past few years. Now I am with Anne below - I am closing in on 42 years young. I have a masters and executive level experience. There is no reason for me to accept $30 per article, etc. I'd be writing day and night to keep myself alive. Now that I am working on a new product offering I am listening to the experts, using their rate card and instead of lowering my rates, I am looking for new clients that can afford me!

  • VVP

    Guilty! I am a freelance photographer in a economically strapped southern state. Recently I talked to a male photog from NYC whose creative eye leaves much to be desired...he makes triple the money I do for the same work! I am constantly underselling myself because I feel like I don't have the experience, the market here sucks or because I feel like I am lucky to be able to do what I do! I am also too shy/ introverted to market myself properly and hate self promotion ....thanks for opening my eyes!

    • edgandia

      Thanks for sharing that! For me, the realization that I've been underselling myself for years is a huge motivator to make big changes in my biz. I've found that kind of controlled "anger" to be a very effective antidote to fear. 😉

  • This is something that has been hammered home to me on sites like Carol Tice's "Make a Living Writing." So much so that when I was recently offered $30-$35 (per article) to write for a local women's publication, I turned it down...even though I have no paying clients yet. I just don't believe anymore in the whole "you have to pay your dues" thing. I have paid my dues. At age 51 I have experience on multiple levels and I intend to get paid what I'm worth, even if it takes awhile to get clients who will pay that. I'd rather continue to build my own blog (where I've been writing for almost three years) and write on other blogs on topics I enjoy (which will also serve to get me exposure out of my niche). I think it's unfortunate that as women we tend to so undervalue our experiences, including our experiences as wives and mothers! This is something I intend to keep working on myself, i.e. to not slacken off my determination to be paid what I'm worth, whether due to desperation or, as you point out, poverty thinking.

  • Mandi

    Guilty as charged on most counts. I have found that when I raised my rates I have been able to attract projects that had bigger budgets where I could use the skills I have. Part of the problem with working with low budget clients are that you don't have the time resources to do a knockout job and are inadvertently positioning yourself as someone who can offer a lot less than you are capable of. I spent extra unpaid time on projects when I was starting out so I'd have great work to show and clients would love me.

  • Great article! Like many of the examples, I started off just being grateful to pay the household bills and be at home with my daughter. I was also seeing an increase in business/income every month, so I was content. But then I discovered some great reads like these and came to a realization that I'M WORTH MORE!

  • sandra

    hi Diana

    Hoping you can help me--i loved the article but can't find book you mention by Bob Bly--I checked out his website where he lists his books but he has published so many with names that approximate the title that you mention I am not sure which specific book you recommend--could you please let me know exact title thanks

  • I'm still guilty of feeling guilty (pun intended) for raising my rates and get paid more than $100 for certain projects. I don't charge by the hour unless it's consulting or SEO gigs.

    I'm a university student who lives with her parents, so my freelance hours are still limited; but that doesn't mean I should get paid pennies--- I'll never get married and buy a house if I continue fearing to raise my rates.

    So I did it this month. I raised my rates against all the fears. I know I respect myself more for the big step and I feel more capable to pitch higher paying publications, too.

    Enough with the old mentality that sees the man as the money maker and the woman as the housewife. There are people among my relatives who still insist on that kind of lifestyle, but it's a no-no to me. I would hate that life for myself.

    Thanks for an insightful, strong piece, Dianna! 🙂

    ~ Luana S.

  • Holy schmoly, this is SO important! I've just started freelancing a year ago as a designer, writing, marketing & translation and have been having clients all through word of mouth. And since I'm starting out, I have been charging RIDICULOUSLY low rates. I just recently had a new client commend me today about the high quality of my work and my professionalism, as if he wasn't expecting it because of the almost bottom rates I charge.

    I am reading Elise Benun's book, The Designer's Guide to Marketing & Pricing, and she says that rather than
    our hourly rate should be more of a positioning tool, and increase rates at LEAST $10/hr every few years, rather than a minimal 2-3% percent each year, otherwise people will think of our services as more of a commodity rather than a consulting service. So I'm wondering what are some other women's experiences, and if there's a "right" answer?

    One interesting thing is that since I work with entrepreneurs, 90% of my clients in the past year are male. And being involved with the high tech (web development) industry, it's 95% male-dominated. What are other women's experiences working with the different sexes? Perhaps that is a whole other topic, and Ed might want to start that discussion?

    Side note: I just put up my website less than a week ago after a year of working as a freelancer. Ironically, I was too busy working on contracts and learning everything there is about running a business, but was finally able to take took a month off to build my website, so if you check it out, please be cognizant of the fact that it's still being beefed up/modified. I will officially launch in about 2 weeks, once I get my Facebook Page up & running! By the way, if anyone would like a good designer for their branding, perhaps you could help round out the gender gap. 😉

  • Dianna,

    Thank you for an amazing article. It's like you've been a fly on my wall - for the past 13 years!

    I came to writing from a medical background. When I was working in the medical field as a clinician and later as a manager, I used my writing and editing skills to author, co-author, and edit programs and manuals. My brain has always been wired for editing and those projects felt like "just part of the job." Until quite recently, I didn't think about them in terms of experience.

    In addition to getting to stay home with my kiddos, another part of my "I'm so lucky" trap is my love of writing. I've always loved writing/editing, so it doesn't feel like work. I felt like I should pinch myself the first time a publication offered me money for an article! It almost feels like I'm stealing - taking money for doing something I love! Silly. So silly. But it's another of my mental hurdles for asking someone to pay me.

    I assumed many of the publications for whom I've freelanced had set fee schedules. From time to time I'd get up the nerve to ask for a bit more on an article that required more in-depth research/interviewing than others I'd completed. I was pleasantly surprised when they agreed. Yet I was fearful to ask for a raise across the board for all future articles, especially after they all made a paycut a few years ago. I was afraid they'd just tell me to go away!

    That's the same mentality I have with corporate clients. I'm afraid a high price will send them packing. My husband has been displeased with my inability to ask for/negotiate/demand higher rates for years. My love of writing meets my fear that clients will run screaming from my presence and they both collide with my generous/giving nature to create the perfect "negotiating for poverty" storm.

    In retrospect, I shake my head thinking about the work I've performed for the fees I've charged. I wish I knew a me. I would patronize them every time I needed something repaired or replaced. I'd let them cook, serve, and clean up every meal I ate! Yet, remarkably, there are people who balk at my meager fees - and don't come crawling back begging me to take them on as clients, which means someone must be doing the work for even less!

    This year I declined my first job. It wasn't the right fit - in multiple ways. It was hard, but at the same time liberating. And largely due to education I've received from blogs like Ed's. But, I've never seen an article like yours - that so tidily sums up my inner thoughts and struggles. I seriously could have written this article, except billing $100/hour after eight years and billing $200/hour now.

    But, I'm on my way to join you! In addition to the information in blogs like these, the other item that's given me confidence to raise rates and pursue a different clientele is the abundance of less-than-stellar writing by "professional experts" who charge their clients hundreds - or thousands - of dollars. After seeing multiple examples of this, I realized the clients are out there! If they are paying these people big bucks for below par work, then there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to corner a piece of that market! I'm a perfectionist. So the bar I've been using to measure my aptitude as inaccurate when compared to the skill level corporate businesses are using.

    One question...How do you know if a rate is too high or if you just haven't found the right market? How many refusals do you get before you say, "Hmmm, maybe it's my rates. I'd better lower them"?

    • @Janey Goude, I would say no rate is too high. If you're worth a certain fee because of the value you provide, then that's what you're worth.

  • Wow! Thanks for all the wonderful comments and feedback, y'all! This is a super-important topic and Dianna has made a solid case here, complete with actionable ideas and advice. Glad to hear this has resonated with so many of you. It's incredibly inspiring to read these comments!

  • When I worked for an employer, I approached salary and commission negotiations by first assessing my value to the department, i.e. I was a top sales person, and when territories were redrawn my goal was doubled and my commission rate was halved. I crunched the numbers myself and showed that with the new plan my earnings were going to take a big hit; I counter offered what I considered fair, and stood my ground. Later, I was told I was the only salesperson who had successfully lobbied for a fair rate; I'm sure that doing my homework made all the difference.

    Now that I am self-employed I am still learning how much time to budget for a project and how to put a value on what I do. It helps to use a spreadsheet, list out all the tasks with an estimate of time, then see what the overall total is when different hourly rates are plugged in. If the rate I would like to charge results in a figure the client might balk at, I pull out tasks from the project that can be priced out separately. The client decides what's important - do those items mean enough to be bought, or bought from me.

    Thanks for the inspiring article; just knowing that we're not alone in our insecurities truly helps to face them!

  • Lakshmi

    Good article. This was like a wake-up call for me. I do intend to hike my rates and charge what I think I am worth - I haven't done that for 6 months now

  • I started my freelance legal proofreading business in 2004 and expanded my services to include editing for a local author in 2011. My first attempt to raise my rates included a request from my clients for feedback asking what I did that was helpful and what I could do to improve my value to them. I THOUGHT I would get only positive feedback and therefore be able to justify the rate increase I had planned to implement a few months down the road. Instead, I received VALUABLE feedback which forced me to review my business practices. I instituted the suggested changes and improved my services. No rate increase followed on the schedule I had planned. A year later, I announced a rate increase without asking for feedback (smile) beforehand. I was terrified that I would lose some of my best clients, but no one batted an eye and all accepted the increase without comment. Whew! It was an exhilarating experience and lesson.Now, I increase my rates using a strategy mentioned above, which is that I quote a higher rate to new potential clients. Generally, the higher rate is accepted without question. The few who mention that their industry has not received increases in years and $xx is the rate they are used to paying for the services I provide. I always sympathize with their plight, but inform them that MY business is not tied to their business model and that MY rate is $xx as I mentioned in the earlier communication. They either accept my rate and send me work or move on to someone else. Either way, I am satisfied that I value my services and will not compromise.One thing that helped me tremendously was when one of my clients had NO legal work and could find nothing in her profession to do. She accepted a project to transcribe a series of Web-based instructional conferences related to marketing and increasing rates and business success. She sent all of this work to me to proofread. As I read these transcripts, I found myself taking to heart some of the ideas and strategies promoted. My business increased as a result.Learning the valuable lesson of letting customers go that were difficult because of poor quality of what they sent to me or that required too much time responding to queries that were unnecessary and oftentimes not related to the task for which I was hired was initially difficult. However, EVERY TIME I fired a client, a new and better and more profitable client appeared.For years I supplemented my income with a part-time job. I lost that part-time job last November and could not find a replacement. My freelance business has sustained me for the last year exclusively. Yes, I had to make some adjustments to an already tight budget, but it is gratifying and empowering to realize that I can support myself on the proceeds of my business alone.I was struck by a comment made by someone who acknowledged that they had a hard time making more money than their parents and others in their neighborhood. This is a common concern that I learned from a friend years ago. She was an insurance executive over a sales force. She said that the highest paid agents came from a background either of very successful families or from very poor families. The agents from middle-class backgrounds generally maintained an income at or near the level that afforded them a similar lifestyle to their parents. She said it was consistent across the board and she was always looking for the more lucrative people to hire.Again, thank you for this important article and I learned much that I can apply to my business. Thanks for helping me along the road of success!

  • Great post!

    I believe everyone can earn what they want. All it takes is a shift in your beliefs and thoughts. This can be tricky because most folks have no desire to do the 'inner' work that's necessary to get to the 'root' of their finance/money issues. I see this with my own family and people in general. Here's an example...

    I attended a rally for President Obama in Parma, Ohio on Thursday, October 18, which featured former President Bill Clinton and Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen. It was a great journalistic opportunity and exciting at the same time. I'm waiting for Mitt Romney to come back so I can attend his rally.

    I observed the crowd closely -- my eyes and ears were open. Some people left because it was too hot; I lived in Phoenix, Ariz. so the heat didn't bother me. I couldn't believe how people just stayed in their spots. They were complacent and satisfied with being in the back of the room. Not me. I said, "Pardon me, excuse me," because I wanted to move closer to the front of the room. It's the same with freelance writing. You have to be BOLD and CONFIDENT in you and your talents.

    I don't buy into this 'men vs. women' earnings war. If you want the same wages, go for it! Men certainly don't shrink back and say, "No, that's okay. I'll settle for (fill in the blank.) Women need to take charge of their own lives and NOT WORRY about what people will think about them. I do believe this is what hold's most women back. They want to please everyone and be liked by everyone. If you continue to do this, you'll remain right where you are. Ask yourself a couple of questions:

    1. How does this serve me?
    2. How does this serve my family?
    3. How does this serve my community?

    If you don't earn what you could or should be earning, you're wasting an opportunity to make as much money as you can so you can help other people in addition to your family. Women can change the world, but they must change their inner dialogue, beliefs, and thoughts.

  • Thank you so so much! I think this article has just changed my life! Not enough words to express my appreciation. I am a stay-at-home mom of 3, living in Belize and NEED to earn the money 🙂

  • This thread has a recurrent theme about hourly rates. In 32 years as an independent designer, I have learned (the hard way) to NEVER tell clients my hourly while in the negotiating phase. (That information is buried in the contract section about changes in scope.)

    Whenever possible, quote a project fee. If you are asked what your hourly is, say that you quote on a project-specific basis, which takes into consideration many aspects that don't lend themselves to quantification on an hourly basis. If you are badgered about it, take this as a signal that the prospect wants a handle with which to beat you up. It's nobody's business what you charge an hour. The job is worth XXXX. Period.

    You can remain open to negotiation, but only from a fee standpoint. How can they possibly know what your overhead is or how much work you can do in an hour? Any guesses they make will be based on wishful thinking. You are selling value, not just chunks of time. Allowing a client to debate your hourly is putting yourself in a permanently powerless position. I think one of the most important things you need to do to be paid properly is to maintain control of your side of the money conversation.

    As a graphic designer, it is perhaps easier for me to quote by project, but I think this must have broader application for other service professionals.

    • @Laurel Black, One reason for the hourly discussion is because Ed asked his survey respondents to quote hourly rates even if you quote by the project.

      I completely agree with everything you stated. A male colleague of mine told me to start saying, "I don't have an hourly rate," when people ask what mine is. That works, as does, "I quote everything by the project."

      Another thing I've noticed with women is that they don't know how long projects take. This is because they don't track their time. So a project can be taking you three times as long as you think -- and while you think you're making $85/hr, you're really only making $45. I highly recommend you track time for everything -- even your own marketing and admin stuff -- so that you know where your time is going and how much things cost you.

      Time is a freelancer's most valuable resource!

      Thanks for the great feedback about project fees.

      • @Dianna Huff: Sorry I missed that the survey question about hourly rates. Your point about time tracking is hugely important. If WE don't value our time, clients will have no reason to. And the place to start is by setting the habit. It hadn't occurred to me to keep track of time spent marketing, but that information is crucial to measuring ROI. Back in the dark ages of regular employment, I had a very controlling boss who insisted that I keep track of all my time in 5-minute increments. Haven't done that in decades - it seemed unreasonable at the time, but I sure knew where my time went. Maybe that's my New Year's Resolution.

        • @Laurel Black, I would be lost without my time tracker - http://www.getharvest.com/.

          I worked for a manufacturing company - all time was tracked by project. Then, we analyzed each project to see where the time went and what were the bottlenecks. We also analyzed profit for each project. I wasn't diligent about tracking time until a few years ago when I got Harvest. Love it.

  • Meke

    @Ursula Ohuka, I'm sorry for the repeat post admin!

    "Good for you for standing your ground. I stood my ground in the past as well, even firing some clients. Their projects are still not done."


  • Meke

    Good for you for standing your ground. I stood my ground in the past as well, even firing some clients. Their projects are still not done.

    • Meke

      ^This msg was meant for Ursula Ohuka btw.

  • Ursula Ohuka

    I am so glad that I read your article.Sometime last year,when I had to negotiate with a client for a job,he wanted to pay me an hourly rate but I refused and insisted on a fee for the entire consultancy project. They hired a much less experienced professional in-house for some of the input I was supposed to make.Needless to say,he couldn't represent them adequately at top level negotiations. Furthermore,they had to return to some of the preliminary strategies that I had suggested and they rejected{based on ill-informed but more profitable(to them) }

  • Stephanie

    Applause! I appreciate this article so much. This also pin points it important to be critical of some of the advice we may have recieved in the past! Believe in yourself! I think you have sparked back to life a very important conversation in an era of #binders (in a non-partisan way) love it!

    • @Stephanie, You bring up a great point. Don't listen to negative people. And trust yourself!

  • This is an amazing article...thank you, thank you, thank you! You've given me so much to think about as I admit to falling into several of the traps mentioned here. I am the mom who is at home with my kids and grateful for it, but who scaled back my (then start-up) business as soon as my first daughter was born. I've stayed in the "it's ok as long as I make some money" mindset and keep telling myself that I'll step it up once both kids are in school. Hmmm. Seems I really need to think long and hard about where I want to be, and I'll do so starting now! I also plan to share your article with some fellow freelancers, both women and men. I think we'll all benefit from this eye-opening piece. Thanks again for sharing your story!

    • @cassie, I highly recommend you read Mika's book -- and watch the Sheryl Sandberg TED video, too. It's all applicable. And thank you for the nice words.

  • Julie


    Fantastic article. It's very refreshing to read something so candid. Thank you for writing it. Can you share with us some examples of how you went about determining how your work improved a client's bottom line? In public relations, this can be easier said than done. How do you place value on increasing Facebook 'Likes,' reputation management and consistency, increased frequency/consistency of engaging with fans and consumers as a brand where it hadn't been done before, working to take a brand from a trade brand to a more consumer-driven brand? Sales after a year aren't reflecting the efforts yet. It's a slow ship to turn around. How do you measure and value yourself for this type of work if you can't point to an increase in sales or can't prove that there would have been a decrease in sales without my efforts?

    • @Julie, When I did copywriting, I had a hard time doing this because I was writing a brochure or a datasheet -- and proving value was difficult. One thing I did was listen to what my vendors would say of other copywriters. I used to get hired because other copywriters missed deadlines or had bad attitude. (People still tell me I'm incredibly easy to work with, which makes me wonder what others do that makes them hard to work with.)

      So for a long time I used to say on my site that I never missed a deadline. Value to the client? Peace of mind and the job gets done. That is value -- we just don't value it. 🙂

      What I do now, before quoting a project, is ask people what their project objectives are -- and then base my proposal on what the client wants to achieve. Then I make sure I've achieve their objectives.

      For you, you just named off a whole bunch of stuff that adds real value. If I were you, I'd build value by showing incremental improvement vs. sales -- which can take a while, esp. with social media. Set baselines with the client and then show how you're meeting them. The baselines should be working toward a specific goal: % increase in leads / sales by a certain date.

      Does that help?

  • Maura - Thanks for the nice words. I don't do article writing, so I don't know which sites pay well. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney both married super smart women. 🙂

  • Maura

    Thank you so much Dianna for this fantastic article. I think it resonates with all women in many ways, not just freelancers - I am going to forward it to everyone. I have reinvented myself as an ESL teacher after being one of the 800,000 people that lost their jobs in Feb. 09. Unfortunately teachers are notoriously underpaid as we know (it's primarily women of course!). My student base is picking up and I don't undercut my hourly rate :-). I also have done small bits of article writing but the pay is terrible on the sites I have used. Could you suggest any sites that are paying well? Thank you again. On a political note, I think it's fantastic that we have a President that is so supportive of women on so many levels. 🙂 Oh and he obviously likes really smart women too!

  • Thank you for this article Dianna. It's coming at a perfect time for me as I'm taking a hard look at this very issue of self esteem and the whole concept of "you teach people how to treat you." I'm going to print this out and put it on my wall to give me courage! Interestingly, when I adjusted my rates (for the first time in five years) at the beginning of 2012, my male clients never even questioned it. It was a revealing moment. Again, thank you so much for the candor and encouragement this article provides.

  • Diana,


    I've been there all too often. I've found that many men just don't like intelligent women. Others love the bantering and the intelligent discussions, find it sexy, and prefer working with capable period, regardless of gender.

    But the earnings discrepancy is real and painful. I'm glad to read your article because you have put an end to my feeling that perhaps I just did something wrong. My entire career has been laced with these threads and its time to put a stop to it. NOW!

    Some recollections:
    Stellar performance resulted in exciting job offer only to learn that instead of the salary range discussed prior to the interview, the manager offered a rate nearly $10,000 below the bottom of my range. They refused to negotiate. I walked away to the chagrin of my family who thought I should settle for any kind of job.

    Upon college graduation with a BA in Hospitality, I first had trouble getting interviews while all the guys were easily and quickly hired for management trainee jobs. It was the early 80's and I failed to recognize it as discrimination. I fought hard to get in, but eventually moved on to a different field. It wasn't until decades later that I learned the reality. Women were still not readily accepted in that industry. Though I moved on to a different field, I was still hired at significantly less than my male counterparts.

    Interviewing with a major software company in the mid 90's, I was now facing an odd element of discrimination. It was a combination of gender and age issues. The interview literally said to me:
    "You should sit on your hands because they look kind of old" and "You look too feminine. You should wear a t-shirt and jeans -- or anything that looks grubbier and less feminine" --- I was probably 42 years old, dressed in slacks, blouse and vest. Nothing overwhelming, but a bit underdressed for business casual.

    But in the new century of everything web related, I still faced the same issues. As a contractor, I'd be told things like: This is the Going Rate. The Client Company determines your pay. Or the worst one ever: "We have big raise in store for you. You are going to be thrilled. We really want you to stick around, and we are working this out to make sure you are paid well." The raise? Seventy Five Cents an hour! GASP!

    Wait -- it's not the worst. There are other stories, but all amount to the question:

    Why not me? What makes me fight so hard for equality and then eventually cave to a need for paying the bills?

    It's only been since I started as a freelance business owner that i felt empowered to set rates based on my worth -- not my need. The more I am involved with great organizations like AWAI, The Freelancer Academy, and several others, the more I am aware of my expertise and value.

    It is odd, I know, but it took me 4 years to attach a dollar amount to the value I brought to my last contract employer. Once I figured out that I actually saved that company at least $18,000,000 annually just by doing my job, the game changed! I no longer questioned my worth. I no longer held my head in shame that here I am trying to rebuild what I lost. I didn't lose anything. I gained my life and my business.

    Thank you for your awesome article. You just lit a fuse in me!

    Nancy Lamb
    Freelance Writer for Health, Wellness, Recreation and Fitness
    Health Coach with a Holistic Approach
    Word Press Web Design

  • Thanks for the kick in the pants, Diana! I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and have been making a better effort in attending conferences, entering my writing for potential awards, and other things to increase my face value to potential clients.

    My largest, most time-consuming client is also the one which pays the least. I can't drop them, but I the time I have to spend on their projects leaves me little time to foster new clients. It's like being in a hamster wheel. But I'm working on it.

    • @Traci Suppa, if you are charging the large, time-consuming client lower than market rates, there is possibly a way to get them in line. I'm a moderator for Q&As during awards season, and I went through this last year with my largest booker (who was paying less than anyone else I worked for, but also paying me less than their other moderators). The first time they called to book me in the new season, I told them that I needed to bring my rates current with the market for the new year, but since we had such a long-standing relationship, I would give them a 10% discount off the new rate. They didn't blink. It was proof that they knew they had been getting a bargain. They booked me a little less than the year prior, and I threw in a freebie now and then for small, low-budget campaigns, but overall I made more and was a lot happier -- and they still got a bargain.

      Throughout time, I discover that every time I tell someone I'm worth more than what they're giving me, whether it's an employer or a family member or a significant other, they agree, and either give me more or we part ways -- always for the better.

      Valerie Alexander
      Goalkeeper Films

  • What a great article, Dianna!

    I agree with you - the golden rules of raising rates are:

    - as soon as you have enough clients at X dollars, raise your rate for all new clients
    - keep your current clients at the current rates
    - as soon as you have enough clients at the new rate, drop the bottom 10% of your clients
    - repeat

    Happy freelancing!

    • @Diana Coada,

      Diana, this process assumes you have ongoing clients. I don't. I'm a freelance editor, and my clients are individual authors who turn over every month. I may get a repeat author three years down the road, after she has written a new book, but that's about it. And I do get referrals. But your method wouldn't work for me. I want to raise my rates from $45 to $50 an hour, but I'm afraid it would scare potential new authors away. Individual authors have difficulty spending thousands on editing.

      • @Arlene Prunkl,

        I'm in the same boat. I live in a rural university town and do a lot of academic editing. I charge $40/hour, based on "Common Rates for Editorial Services" from the Editorial Freelancers Association. I did a proofreading job for a professor's short grant application; he asked for a quote on a much larger project, which incurred a much larger fee estimate. I never heard from him again. The university press has not raised its hourly rates in over 10 years.

        I've done book editing as well and experienced the same problem as you with individual authors balking at my estimates. But I don't back down and offer a lower rate just to get a job.

        Word rates for writing are similarly restricted by departmental budgets. I got 40 cents/word for one department's project; I'm getting 70 cents a word for roughly similar work for a different department.

        I guess my point here is that it isn't only gender that limits one's fees. It's also the location and the local market. I'd love to charge more, because I know I'm worth it. I'm also one of the few editor/writers in my area, so it's not like I have tons of competition. But since my primary source of clientele is a publicly funded university (not a corporation), I'm limited by their budget.

  • Lynn Allen

    Excellent article and perfectly timed. I recently raised my fee for resume writing and no one blinked. It's still a moderate fee, but clients accepted it without pushback. That tells me it's still not high enough, so I'll probably raise them again and repackage my resume services for a better value for me and my clients.

    As a long-time employee unable to find a job in today's market, I still struggle with being a freelancer and entrepreneur in a man's world. I recently decided to market to a different crowd -- one with more money than small business owners. This change is scary, but I am determined to up my game. Your article helps bolster the resolve and find a better arena with more supportive, and generous, players. When I doubt my worth in the market, I'm determined to pretend that doubt is not there and at least "fake it til I make it."

    Thanks again.

    • @Lynn Allen,
      You just reminded me of another scenario.
      I do some work with my husband. In some cases, his presence is helping seal deals with clients, but it's infuriating to still have that sense of "fighting to be seen and heard" when in fact, I brought the deal to the table.

      The consultant I spoke with yesterday used a great question:
      Is this something the client is used to paying for?

      In some cases, we are building with small businesses, but I too am going to start marketing to clients with better budgets.

      Have a great day.

  • Thanks Diana. I definitely still struggle with this issue, but I'm working on it. I can still remember feeling resentful when I would babysit for $1 an hour and end up with four dollars when my brother spent one hour on a lawn and earned $20! Thank you for writing this.

    • @Christiane Marshall, You are welcome. 🙂

  • Hi Dianna-
    Thanks for your article and thanks to Ed for bringing it forward.

    I have tried to post a reply 3 times now and obviously am reaping some kind of karma - as they won't 'take'. 😀

    The short version is that it's not where you sit, it's how you handle yourself. The deference culture infuriates me - and it exists in every type of group, all-male, all-female and mixed. I've been to all-female gatherings and encountered the same pecking order mentality - the refusal to be flexible or to accept behavior that is outside comfort zones. Men operate within their own deference circles, but will always expect women to behave within certain patterns.
    For the female freelance professional, the tough thing I've experienced is the multi-level fight that goes on to achieve pay equality. My client will often be a male, so I stomp out brush fires of assumption, wave my flags of experience, training and education wildly and then stab them into the ground directly in front of the brow-furrowed male who has a project for sale. This is even harder to accomplish on the phone, of course.
    If my client is a female, unfortunately the doubt may be even more severe - and the fight filled with more reluctance - everything from 'why isn't she a mother?' to 'if I hire her will I look like I'm favoring my sex?' to 'If she screws up I'll get so much crap for hiring a woman' - and on and on.
    A woman who freelances is convincing an army of perceptions that she is qualified to do the job - and then, when she's hired - she faces a final fight to get her client to commit to their belief that she's qualified by paying her what they would pay a man without blinking.
    I actually landed one project years ago with a client who had been a tough nut on the phone, but had finally agreed to an interview. He was certain a female couldn't grasp his project or his needs. I showed up in a 3-piece mans-suit, wearing guy shoes, a tres cool tie and --- a rolled up tube sock stuffed down the front of my nicely pleated pants. The client reacted with humor and our meeting went exceptionally well. It was a risk - humor always is - but my ridiculous gambit was a bold move that a male would understand. And if he didn't, I didn't want to work with him.
    We all know those clients who simply aren't worth the fight...
    Dianna - great article and thanks for championing my pet peeve.

    • @Maria D'Marco, One thing I love about the Sheryl Sandberg video someone mentioned below: she is wearing *killer* black spike heels. 🙂

  • CMColeman

    This training episode really hit home for me. I've just recently given myself a kick in the butt and mustered up the courage to expect more from myself in terms of earning power and I'm holding myself to a plan of action to make that happen.

    My services have been worth much more than what I have been charging or earning, but what's holding me back I think, comes right down to "Mistake #2: We Consider Ourselves So LUCKY". Other things come up - but it seems to circle back to that. A huge ding-ding-ding went off in my head when reading this because it spelled out exactly what I hadn't yet put into words.

    There's another element, for me, that's also tied to self-worth - earning more than my parents or spouse or what the community thinks is "normal". In my neck of the woods, what I do for a living is unheard of, suspicious even. My family and peers and community believe in hard work and a modest living - a woman earning $30/hour is an amazing job where I'm at. That has held me back from pursuing the rates that I should be charging. And it's scaled my expectations of my earning power. I need to stop comparing to those around me - especially those who are not in my professional realm (Lack thinking) and concentrate on myself and my own business!

    Thanks Dianna for putting words to this important issue in such a powerful way. The only ones holding women freelancers back from earning more is.. ourselves!

    • Crystal -- I have the same problem too. I live in a modest neighborhood. And, I suffer from being afraid to say I earn more than everyone in my family. I'm glad you found this article helpful. I was so nervous about writing it -- but am really glad I did!

  • Christina Lee

    Dianna, thank you so much for this article. Coming out of this however, I do have one question: In your experience, about how often have you raised your rates? Also, what's your definition of "regularly"? Every six months? One year? Or, whenever you see fit?

    I've contemplated raising my rates myself, but I just haven't been able to figure out when I should do it, or (perhaps more importantly) how I should tell my clients. Again, thanks so much!

    • Christina,

      I raised my fees only sporadically and incrementally -- which was part of my problem. I now know to raise them anytime I can demonstrate increased value.

      Alan Weiss recommends that when you do raise them, you keep your current clients at the current rates -- but all new clients have to pay the new rates. He also recommends that you drop the bottom 10% of your clients every year to make room for new clients.

  • Rachel -- I did see Sheryl Sandberg's talk -- and she also talks about this topic in Mika's book. Women don't sit at the table, we don't raise our hands, we don't speak up. And yes, men freelancers also have issues with charging low rates, but I think we women have a much harder time with it.

    Natalie -- Thank you!

    • @Dianna Huff, Some women do sit at the table and raise our hands. We speak up. Is that why I am single?

      • @Kate Frank,

        Lots of men like *really* smart women. 🙂

        And yes, not ALL women sit quietly against the wall.

  • This is so true! No one can make me charge less simply because everyone else does that. I am too good to be cheap.
    Thank you for this article! It will be useful for my colleagues (translators).

  • Hi Dianna,

    Great article and important issue! I was interviewed recently by a group of up-and-coming female freelancers, and they asked me if I had faced any difficulties in my business because I am a woman. I honestly couldn't think of anything and even after the call, I still couldn't think of anything (beyond being hit on at a couple of networking parties). Did you see this TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg - http://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html? She talks about how women tend not to "sit at the table" at meetings with the men. I couldn't believe it until I witnessed it myself. I went to a large meeting at a client's and all of the women (except me) sat around the edge of the room, while the men got all the seats at the table. Crazy! I feel that both women and men need to push for professional rates and challenge themselves to grow their freelance businesses.


  • This is a great article, thank you! We were just discussing this very thing yesterday at my Entrepreneur's Breakfast Club, which is made up of women. I hope they get as much out of it as I did.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I'm glad you found value in it.