Question: Are Women Doing Enough to Close the Gender Pay Gap?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask this question, but then I thought I had to. I don’t like confrontation, but I do value accountability. I value it most in myself. It’s too easy to blame someone else, or better yet, an entire gender or industry for the fact that I bring home next to nothing at the end of the day. As someone in charge of their own pay, this has nothing to do with the current talk of a gender pay gap, though. Right?

The gender pay gap is defined as: the difference between the amounts of money paid to women and men, often for doing the same work.

In my “traditional” jobs I believe that I was always paid fairly and given a fair shake. Right up until my experience with a female boss, ironically enough. I never questioned bringing home under $35K for a Creative Director position, until I decided to leave and found out what she offered my male replacement. Hm.

These days, if I’m not making as much as my male counterpart, who’s fault is that? I don’t have someone limiting my opportunities or pay rate. So, it’s my fault. But, how do I fix it?

This study by HoneyBook illustrates just how skewed the gap is in the creative industry among us independent types. We’re in charge of our own rates, yet women still bring home less. Why?

To answer this question we really have to look at several factors, including ourselves.

Conditioning: Let’s blame society.

This might sound like blame, but just stick with me a minute.

Society plays a huge role in our self image. From our communities, family environment, school experiences and then work … we’re constantly being taught what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” for us as members of a specific gender. We’re really the first generation that was exposed to an ideal of equality in the workplace from childhood. When I graduated high school in 1996, I was pigeon holed into social work by my guidance counselor. I told her what I loved (art, music and children) and she steered me toward social work. I wasn’t told by a guidance counselor specializing in career goals that I could have a creative career. Why?

It wasn’t until an art teacher discovered me explaining perspective to a friend that someone intervened. He stood behind us and waited for me to sketch a stack of books to illustrate my point. He asked me very plainly, “Why don’t I know you?” He told me about graphic design. I changed course that week and began my journey into the creative industry. It’s interesting to me that a female guidance counselor steered me toward a “traditionally” female profession, while the male creative steered me into what was perceived at the time to be a “male” industry.

“Charging what I was worth took letting go of what seemed “comfortable.” I was creating imagery that would be used to make my client thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in return. Understanding the true value of the product enabled me to charge a fair price with confidence.”

Shay Cochrane

Owner of three commercial photography and product styling businesses.

So, even today we’re sort of conditioned to believe that men do certain jobs better than women. As a result they get the opportunities and rates that they deserve. What happens when we’re in control though? We unintentionally revert to that thinking that “I can’t possibly ask as much as him.” Well, why the hell not?

I still struggle with this. I charge half what other independent male creatives charge. Why do I do that? Because I want to be affordable? Maybe, but if I’m really honest, I don’t really take myself seriously. And yes, it’s because I’m a female.

The Motherhood Penalty

This is the worst. A penalty for doing the hardest and best job on the planet?

In a “traditional” workplace this is imposed by those around us. There’s an expectation that a women will eventually want to have children. This implies that she will no longer be able or willing to perform her duties for an extended period of time. And once she returns to work, that she won’t be as committed to her profession.

When I gave birth to my daughter, three years into running my business, I planned to take two weeks off. In reality, it was more like two days. I have this almost dysfunctional loyalty to my clients. If they ask for something, I am likely going to make it happen at the cost of my personal time. It comes from a fear of disappointing them. I have gotten better at creating boundaries over the years, but that creates it’s own internal war. “How can I charge more when I impose these time boundaries on projects?” As if my personal life and emotional balance are of no value whatsoever.

I see this in more women than men. Men will bust tail on a project, but not for fear of letting the client down. I think it’s more pragmatic than that. It’s their job, they get paid, and they don’t feel that obligation to parent the same way women do. Because, well, conditioning. In my experience (even in my own marriage) I don’t see women insisting that their male partner’s share the parenting responsibilities. They seem to be complicit in the idea that they just can’t commit 100% because, well, they’re the mom.

We’re Are Our Own Worst Enemies

I’m beginning to truly believe this. While our counterparts in “traditional” jobs are mostly at the mercy of their executives, we pretty much have control over these things. If someone won’t pay us what we’re asking we likely have the answer. It just requires insight, accountability and a willingness to take action.

I’ve been up and down with myself about rates and why I can’t break the ceiling I’ve placed over my head. Lately, I assume it’s just the motherhood thing. I don’t have the time to commit. Right? Maybe. If I’m really honest again, it has more to do with valuing myself … again.

We are afraid to negotiate for higher rates. We are afraid to set firm prices. We are too emotionally invested in the relationships right from the start. These all sound like stereotypes, I know. “Women are wishy-washy and can’t make decisions. They’re too emotional. Blah, blah, blah” . But, I’ve had to unlearn these behaviors myself. I’ve learned to let people go rather than discount my rates. I remind myself not to get invested in the first consult. That’s tough. Especially when it’s another woman looking for support.

I get that my services aren’t the cheapest. I also know that what clients are getting from me is going to contribute to their success and has the potential to make them some serious coin, if they do their job. I’m giving clients the tools to market themselves. It’s an investment, in every sense of the word. And I think we’ve all been conditioned (again) to be more comfortable investing in strong, professional, stable men. It’s bullshit, but even I do it sometimes.

“There will always be an abundance of people willing to tell you that you can’t. Work hard until the people who once called you sweetheart are now calling to ask you for advice. And then treat them with the kind of dignity they forgot to show you.”

Mary Marantz

Internationally renowned photographer, author, educator & speaker.

Stereotypical Solutions

I guess this all comes to one solution for me:


It’s become a buzz word, but I believe it’s really the key to this pay gap issue in creative business owners. All we can do it value ourselves and keep pushing forward. If you don’t back down you will send a message that you will not be devalued. When you keep your chin up and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the male web designer across town you show the next female designer that she can too. Be visible. Be strong. Be consistent. We have the power to change the course of this thing.