The gender pay gap based is often quoted as 13.9% for full-time workers in Australia in 2020. But this statistic only applies to women working in full-time positions and doesn’t incorporate bonuses and other supplementary income, which women receive far less than men. When we include these factors, the gender gap in total wage income is 32% – more than twice as wide.

But wait! There’s more! In the US, the gender pay gap between self-employed men and women is a staggering 56%. In Australia, 47% of self-employed women are in particularly vulnerable business positions of working part-time, and working either without incorporation or without any other employees, or both, compared to 19% of self-employed men. Over time, the gender pay gap has a cumulative effect.

The recent pandemic has further highlighted all of our society’s disparities and inequalities with the most marginalised, most vulnerable segments of our country the hardest hit. Among marginalised groups, self-employed women with children have been pushed to the brink, under ever-greater levels of pressure and stress.

Mothers of young children are up to three times more likely to be self-employed than other working women, with home-based businesses one of the fastest-growing business sectors in Australia. Most workplaces are still woefully inadequate in meeting the everyday needs of working parents and self-employment is often seen as the only viable option. As one woman put it to me last week, “I didn’t see how I could work otherwise.”

I’ve listened to countless stories of exhaustion, burnout, pressure and workplace bullying, and empty promises of flexible working conditions that never eventuate. Over the last week alone, two students shared stories of workplace bullying and immoral, indifferent treatment by management when these women were fired or managed out of a job. I regularly hear heart-breaking stories and sentiments by women who feel guilty that they’re not earning more and contributing more to the household income, or who feel that their business is seen as a burden or “just” a creative hobby by friends and family.

The complex roots of imbalance in the gender pay gap

Like most things in life, the truth behind the gender pay gap isn’t simply one reason or another, but a multitude of interwoven factors that are historical, cultural, biological (women’s fertility peaks when their careers are taking off), systemic and inherent/intrinsic.

While we desperately need to dismantle the systems of oppression, demand diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and continue to rewrite policy and laws to make workplaces encouraging of the whole person (which absolutely includes men and non-binary folks), for self-employed women, there’s much that we can control and focus on changing in the here and now. And a big change can be quick.

I’ve supported and witnessed women who go from earning $30,000 a year to $90,000 the following year, without a huge number of external changes. Extra earnings bring choices: in employing help, in saving for the future, in improving our circumstances in the here-and-now.

Again, it’s not as simple as changing your attitude to money. To illustrate, let’s take an example of a woman in her 30s trying to grow her business while also being the primary carer for two young children who aren’t yet in school, while her husband regularly travels and can’t offer much practical help. In addition, the woman is responsible for her elderly parents. It doesn’t matter how much work the woman does to challenge unhelpful beliefs and thinking, dismantle her socialisation, or think positively, she has the odds stacked against her. If we were to add further hindrances such as a physical disability, being a member of a marginalised community, or mental health challenges (which would be totally in keeping with this picture I’m painting!), then the value of internal work would be limited.

This is a long-winded way of saying: it is not your fault if you are earning less money in your business than you believe you ‘should’. AND, there are things you can do to change your situation, starting today.

In whose interests are your beliefs about money?

Your relationship with, and identity to, money is one of the quickest, more accessible things that you can change today to see an immediate improvement, while we continue to fight for systemic and cultural change.

The stories we tell about ourselves in relation to money influence our identity, feelings, and behaviours. Some of the most common that I hear:

“I’m not good with money.”
“I feel bad for charging.”
“I could never charge that.”
“I don’t care about money.”
“I’m not greedy.”
“Is my work worth that much? Am I worth it?”

These attitudes are incredibly common and harmful. When you tell yourself you “aren’t good with money” or “not motivated by money”, you let yourself off the hook and are free to judge other who earn more. When you tell yourself that it’s not possible to earn more in your current circumstances, you stop trying.

These beliefs keep us stuck. They justify our dissatisfaction. They create unnecessary angst regarding our perceived ‘lack’ or shortfall in earnings. They can create further stress if we fall into the self-employed trap of swapping one boss for many.

Your beliefs didn’t just appear; they were planted. When I come face-to-face with a belief that’s causing me insomnia or grief, I ask myself: “in whose interests is it for me to believe this?”

Essential self-employment skills

Self-employment requires innumerable skills, not least of which is your particular expertise. Essential skills include:

  • The ability to position ourselves as an expert, authority or leader in our field so as to secure higher pay and better conditions;
  • The ability to communicate the value of what we offer so that clients can understand this (and pay us!);
  • The self-advocacy to negotiate, enforce our terms and conditions, and ask for what we want;
  • High-level emotional intelligence to understand how our language and behaviour is perceived and how to better communicate;
  • Self-insight to discern between unhelpful and helpful attitudes and beliefs we hold.

As I see it, self-esteem is your relationship with yourself while self-confidence is how you present yourself to the world. While self-esteem and self-confidence influence each other, as I’ve written about before, it’s fairly straightforward to influence self-confidence.

When you believe you are a passive recipient of stronger personalities, market conditions, or other factors, you give away your power and allow others to erode your self-esteem.

Too many years of clients refusing to honour our terms and conditions, taking too long to pay or refusing to pay invoices, disrespecting our boundaries, being overly demanding, dishonest or manipulative has a very real, damaging effect on self-esteem and future actions or inactions. Recourse for self-employed people is oftentimes drawn out, too difficult, or impossible.

So what happens? Perhaps you lower your prices, or don’t increase them for years, you lower your expectations of what’s possible, suppress or deny your drive and desires, and may even begin to believe that you are unable or unworthy of earning more.

I’ve met so many women over the years who have decades of experience and deep expertise, who are making a barely liveable wage. This is why I do what I do. It breaks my heart and motivates me to provoke uncomfortable, oftentimes difficult conversations, in an attempt to break open this taboo and address it in the harsh light of reality.

In whose interests are your beliefs? If they’re causing you to stay stuck, to feel inadequate or less than, or to feel you have few choices or little power, your beliefs are not in your interests.

Claim your power

Examine your attitudes and beliefs through the lens of “in whose interests is it for me to believe this?” Take back your power.

I hope it goes without saying that money isn’t everything. But money gives you choice, freedom and power. It influences where you live, your education and your kids’ education, your freedom and flexibility, your quality of care and how often you can have a break. Money buys time – to spend however you like.

The amount you earn influences your self-esteem and identity. It affects the power dynamic within your household and romantic relationship. It influences what you can do to raise the standards for others, including other women needing a hand up.

Working with one’s psychology, examining our beliefs, fears, attitudes and identity, isn’t easy, and it isn’t enough. It doesn’t excuse or exclude the work that desperately needs doing on the systems and cultural and subcultural factors that have a very real, enduring effect on our circumstances.

But all change starts with dissatisfaction for the current status quo. If you want things to change, you need to get angry.