Freelancing for women works but motherhood makes it much harder


Freelancing for women is becoming an extremely attractive, and increasingly lucrative market for women – especially those that are struggling to smash the corporate glass ceiling, or with children to look after.

Every year the press remind us of how women are ruling the classroom and slowly but surely closing the gap in the boardroom, but do women come out on top when they go it alone?

Female Freelancers: The Stats

Let’s take a look at some freelance statistics.

There are now 287,000 freelancing mothers in the UK, a figure that has increased by 70 per cent in the last decade, with flexibility cited as the number one reason. And freelance mothers contribute £7 billion to the UK economy each year.

Recent ONS figures revealed that women now account for at least 38% of the freelancing community with a 1/3 of that number (13% of the total), being mothers.

This is an estimated 25% increase in the last decade, which shows that freelancing is quickly becoming a profession where the sexes really are equal.


Why the increase in female freelancers?

There are plenty of reason that suggest women may make better freelancers:

  1. Women are better disciplined, so less likely to struggle with the unregimented and autonomous work dynamic of freelancing
  2. Women are predisposed to multitasking, and can therefore juggle the multiple contracts and work streams necessitated by freelancing
  3. Women are more accustomed to sleep deprivation, so can accommodate the often long and ungainly hours of self-employment
  4. Women are more personable and consequently better suited to marketing and the importance of relationship building in freelancing

Other reasons include that It’s long been suggested that the traditional office is a more hospitable environment for men, an assumption which a recent poll reinforced, the results showed that 80% of Britons believe that it has become more difficult for women to progress in large corporations.

This suggests that the corporate world is still polarised by gender attitudes, with men under 30 looking favourably on male employees, believing that women spend too much time flirting and arguing.

This may explain why freelancers between 25 and 34 are mostly female; either there’s not enough worth flirting with in the office, or they feel the office environment is too regressive to be worth the effort.

One very real obstacle in office employment and a strong incentive for women to move into freelancing, is the issue of maternity leave, not to mention the potential difficulties of balancing the ensuing childcare with a career.

As a freelancing mum the flexibility offers them the ability to juggle childcare with work, translating into hefty savings. Nursery costs alone account for £11,000 on average a year.

The Government’s recent changes to Child Benefit, which capped parents claiming at £60,000 annual earnings, has made freelancing even more appealing to mothers, as they are able to maintain their income at a certain level and retain some or all of their Child Benefit.

It’s undeniable that the rise of the female freelancer is due to its increasing attractiveness to working mothers – which is likely to have further increased after the Government rolled out their childcare vouchers for working parents in 2015.


Women turn to freelancing for better pay and working conditions

The number of women turning to self-employment has risen by 57 per cent since 2008, a report by IPSE (the found. That is more than double the increase in self-employed men in the same period, with two of the most common reasons for the change being better income (23%) and better work conditions (22%).

The increase in the number of female freelancers (the highly skilled solo self-employed) was even sharper: a 63 per cent rise since 2008. As a result, 42 per cent of all freelancers are now female, compared to 35 per cent of all solo self-employed people.

There has been particularly strong growth in the number of self-employed mothers since 2008: they now account for approximately one in eight self-employed people.

Take Anne Ridout for example who was working as a copywriter for a tech start-up when she discovered she was pregnant.

It was a full-time position on a rolling contract – meaning she wasn’t permanent staff – but Anne been there more than a year and felt like part of the team.

When Anne . called a meeting with HR to discuss her role being kept open for her while she was on maternity leave, the room went quiet.

They carefully explained that she’d be getting no maternity pay and that while they would make a verbal agreement to keep her job open, they wouldn’t put it in writing.

They reminded Anne that they were free to terminate my contract at any point, with just a month’s notice.

Anne decided it might be prudent to stay quiet in case I wanted to return to that job after the birth recovery period. So instead of putting up a fight, she gulped back tears and worked right up until she went into labour.

She’d managed to secure a pay rise – up from £185 to £250 a day – and this enabled her to save £10,000 to supplement the Maternity Allowance she was entitled to as a freelancer (£136 a week).

That summer, Anne gave birth to a baby girl and found her life consumed with nappy-changing, leaking breasts and attempts to soothe her colicky daughter.

All thoughts of returning to that freelance job disappeared as she realised that actually, she quite liked being a mother and felt rather attached to my baby. A Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-6 job no longer felt right.

Freelancing is clearly vital for many mothers and carers too, because it gives them the ability to both earn an income and spend time with their children and family. For some, it can also be a means of moving back into the workforce.


Mums need to beware the freelance trap

But there are downsides to freelancing among all the benefits of going freelance.

When Maria Laly had her first child in 2010, going freelance seemed like the smart option.

She was the health editor of a magazine and loved her job, but the nursery costs in her South London postcode (£70 a day), plus the 6pm pick-up time that would have seen Maria having to leave work an hour early each day, sealed the deal.

Going freelance meant Maria wouldn’t have to rush myself and my new baby out the door each day. So She hired a part-time nanny (for a fraction of the £350-a-week nursery costs), who came to her house when Maria needed to work; and worked around nap times and in the evening too.

When Maria told friends, whose jobs in law or nursing meant they had to be in a workplace each day, face crippling nursery fees and do the mad pick-up dash, they envied her.

But as the years went on and after another child in 2013, Maria started to realise her seemingly cosy freelance set up was anything but.

Because she worked from home and her husband commuted into his office job in London, it fell to Maria to do the school drop-offs and pick-ups, preparing lunches, and putting washing on.

And when she stopped working at 5 or 6pm, Maria made dinner, helped with homework, did bath time and bedtime stories, and then picked up her laptop at 9pm to spend another hour or so working on the sofa.

Maria didn’t have any colleagues to chat to or bounce ideas off, or bosses to mentor and guide me. She didn’t have a company pension or sick pay, and during school holidays she had to look after the children all day and then work all evening.

Far from living the freelance dream, Maria had fallen into the freelance trap.

So she wasn’t surprised to read a study this week that found women who work from home also do more childcare.

According to German researchers, the freelance boom, which has seen more of us than ever working flexibly from home, has backfired on freelancing mothers by entrenching old-fashioned gender roles at home.

In other words, while freelancing mothers are bringing home the bacon, they’re frying it too. And washing up afterwards.

The researchers found that fathers are more likely to remain office-based after having children, which leaves mothers who work from home with a “double burden”. Mothers who work the same number of hours as their other halves are spending three more hours on childcare per week than the father.

Yvonne Lott, an expert on gender and working hours who worked on the study, found that while the amount of time the average working mother spends caring for her children has barely fallen (from 22.5 hours a week in 2001 to 21 hours in 2016), the time for working fathers has barely risen: 8.6 hours a week in 2016, compared with 7.3 in 2001.

As Dr Lott says:

“Fathers use working from home and self-determined working hours exclusively to put in markedly more time on the job. When they work from home they work on average for two extra hours a week. With flexitime they even invest a little less time in looking after their children.”

Maria warns new mothers considering going freelance for the flexibility and freedom: don’t let the have-it-all dream become a do-it-all nightmare.

In short, don’t fall into the freelance trap.

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