Swilling around in the pool of opinions about the gender pay gap is the notion that if women don’t like how much they’re being paid by their employers, they should simply quit their jobs and work for themselves.
After all, if you’re your own boss then you set the pay; if you don’t like it, simply pay yourself more. Because that’s exactly how self-employment works. Sadly this simple solution to the gender pay gap runs into a problem when we look at the evidence. Research from the ONS shows that in 2016 full-time, self-employed men earned an average of £363 per week, while their female counterparts earned a third less at £243. And for a second there we thought we had the whole problem fixed.
The reality is that women in self-employment run into exactly the same problems that those working for someone else’s business do. For a start we know that a large number of self-employed women are in sectors which are traditionally lower paid.
Clerical, caring and cleaning are less profitable professions dominated by self-employed women. This tendency to value female work less has been at the route of the employed gender pay gap debate; is it that women choose to work in sectors that are just naturally worth less, or is it that we value the work done by women less than the work done by men? We could debate this for days (have at it in the comments) but I’m pretty sure that a nurse has more value to society than a banker.
There is also the belief that women tend to ask for less than men, so therefore they are simply paid less – but as many a freelancer will tell you, the first thing you learn is that if you don’t earn, you don’t eat, so you better get used to asking for money pretty fast.
A 2016 academic study showed that in employment both men and women would treat a female asking for a pay rise differently from a male. Although they might get the raise, the company would tend to hold it against them and see them as difficult or demanding.
This instinctive reaction teaches women that they can ask for money but it’s going to be a difficult experience and they’re going to be resented for it. Is it then any wonder that women become reluctant to ask?
The greatest reason for the pay gap in self-employment is the motivation behind striking out on your own. For men, the most common reason is because they want to be their own boss, for women it’s because they want a better work-life balance. And of course, when we say that women want a better work-life balance, what we really mean is that women have a level of caring responsibilities that traditional employment doesn’t allow them to meet.
If you’ve ever worked for a large organisation, you can’t have failed to notice the drop-off in women when they have children. Most companies just aren’t interested in providing the flexibility needed for women to work and take on the majority of the childcare responsibilities (and yes, women still do most of this). There’s also the reality that childcare is expensive, and support for this doesn’t kick in for a few years. Women looking at sacrificing their entire salary simply so they can pay someone else to look after their child might think they’re better off working for themselves.
We’re only going to see more of this as caring responsibilities grow. We know that women are hit by a double-bind of children and ageing parents, that it’s more difficult for them to re-enter the workplace after taking time out for children, and that they’re more likely to prioritise flexibility over money.
You might say that these are choices that women make, and that if they choose to make them then they have to accept they earn less.
But what would happen if women didn’t make these choices? If no one entered the caring professions or prioritised picking up their children from school over work, or looked after their ageing parents?
Self-employed women are doing the same juggling act their their employed peers are doing, and they’re being punished for it in the same way. The gender pay gap doesn’t disappear because you work for yourself – it only widens.