The fight against inequality is probably going to be the defining fight of the 21st Century. For all that equality is a noble goal, economies around the world seem to have a natural tendency to become more unequal, rather than more egalitarian. That’s why the Ford Foundation, among others, is focused entirely on inequality.
But while broad societal inequality is becoming more noticed, and while individual companies are starting to measure gender inequality within their ranks, it’s harder to see what is going on in the increasingly atomized way we work today.
Certainly it’s known that if you let the invisible hand allocate resources without any eye to fairness, the resulting inequality can be staggering. Look at bitcoin, for instance: 0.01% of all bitcoin addresses own 20% of all the bitcoin in the world, with the top 0.001% of addresses taking 17.5% of all bitcoin.
But no one needs bitcoin. What about simple everyday employment? You might imagine that in this internet-intermediated world, gender differences in pay would disappear: Male and female Uber drivers perform the same service for the same price. But the fact is that once you go beyond commoditized work and enter a world where payment is negotiated, inequality gets really bad, really quickly.
Honeybook has a new study which has some sobering figures about the creative economy, drawn from an analysis of some 200,000 invoices which were submitted over the past year. Overall, men in creative industries make $45,400 per year: that’s 32% more than the $30,700 earned by women. One particularly depressing part of the reason is that women often end up earning incredibly low wages: 24% of female creatives make $5 per hour or less.
Sexism is to blame, of course. In the world of musicians and DJs, for instance, men earn more than double what women make, largely because the people hiring musicians (who are mostly men) have conscious or unconscious biases against women. In large professional organizations like orchestras, those biases can be addressed. In the world of freelance gig work, they’re more likely to run rampant.
Sexism is also visible in the way that jobs are gendered. Male freelance illustrators just get taken more seriously than female freelance illustrators, and get paid commensurately. More generally, while men and women are equally likely to start a creative business in order to follow a passion, men tend to get rewarded for that (“you’re really devoted and passionate about this, we should pay you more”). Women, on the other hand, get punished. (“You’re really devoted and passionate about this, so you should be willing to do it for that reason alone.”)
A deeper reason for pay inequality is price opacity when it comes to rates and salaries. In industries where no one really knows what anybody else is paid, the people who are most aggressive and shameless about ramping up their fees are the people who will end up making the most money. Photographer Shay Cochrane, in the Honeybook survey, sums it up:
When I transitioned from portrait and wedding photography to commercial photography, I had to understand the extreme value shift of the product that I was creating with essentially the same amount of time and effort. Charging what I was worth took letting go of what seemed “comfortable.”
Then there’s the motherhood penalty. One huge downside to being self-employed is that there’s no paid maternity leave. The financial repercussions of taking time off to have a baby or two, right when one’s pay should be rising most quickly, can reverberate for years, especially in creative industries where it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between one person’s profession and another person’s hobby. When motherhood arrives, it’s easy for creatives and their clients both to switch into looking at the work as something which the woman does “in her spare time,” in a way that doesn’t really happen to fathers.
None of this comes as a great surprise, although the sheer magnitude of the income gap between men and women in creative professions is startling. The tough question is not why there’s a gap, but rather what can be done about it, at a systemic level. All too often, the onus is placed on female entrepreneurs to fix the problem, when they’re the very ones who are being damaged by the current system.
And while there are many ways to move towards greater equality, the single most important one would probably simply be greater price transparency. It’s important in a corporate context, and it’s even more important for the self-employed.
Beyond that, corporations who are serious about income equality should be looking hard not only at their employees but also at their freelance vendors.
The first step, though, is simply understanding that there is a deep and systemic rift here. Honeybook surveyed more than 3,000 creative entrepreneurs, and 63% of them believed that men and women are paid equally in creative industries. Only once they start to understand just how wrong they are, will they ever begin to do something to address the problem.