Want to take action this International Women’s Day? Stop asking women to work for free


Source: Unsplash/Charles Deluvio.

Even with the rise of the gig economy, it’s not uncommon for people to spend their entire working lives as employees with a regular income and little thought for the source of their wages.

I remember those days of blissful employee ignorance.

Payday arrived and with it came my monthly salary, regardless of what was happening in the business.

There could have been a billion-dollar lawsuit, or an operation overseas might have closed down. A colleague may have lost their life at work. The company could be bleeding money or raking in the dough.

I’d still get paid. Like clockwork.

Escaping the golden handcuffs of secure employment for the rollercoaster that is running your own show quickly awakens you to the importance of cashflow.

Running your own business means:

  • You have to find someone to pay you money for what you provide, be that a product or service;
  • Then, you have to earn the money by providing that product or service;
  • Then, the customer has to send you the money they owe you; and
  • Then, and only then, you can get paid.

That’s four steps to money hitting your personal account. Four steps before you can cover your living costs.

In a small business, you don’t get paid if cashflow dries up.

This is the reality millions of small business owners, freelancers and gig economy workers face every working week. The pandemic threw this into focus, with JobKeeper filling the cashflow gap temporarily.

Occasionally, a lifetime employee will remind me that those on wages don’t necessarily understand how small businesses work.

For example, I was asked in late-2020 to deliver a presentation to employees at a bank. This would be recorded and broadcast to their wider business.

(Recording implies they can use the video whenever they like. Any intellectual property contained becomes fair game as it’s not in control of the service provider.)

The topic was negotiable. They were thinking perhaps how to teach kids about saving.

This is my area of expertise. I’ve developed intellectual property around it and built a successful small business on teaching parents these very skills. Such presentations are what my business does to generate cashflow.

When I asked for their budget, the reply was: “The program organisers are looking for presenters who are willing to present for free to get the exposure across our 60,000-employee network.”

This same employee network powers a business that had an FY20 net profit after tax of tens of billions of dollars.

When I expressed my shock at this audacious request — a for-profit company asking a small business to work for free — they apologised, explaining no offence was meant.

Then they stuck to their guns. They believed the exposure was a fair trade for a free presentation.

This is an organisation that claims to be supportive of women, and it was a woman making the request.

This IWD, they’ll probably hold employee events celebrating their hard work towards equality.

My blood boils at the thought of this hypocrisy.

With so many women operating their own businesses or freelancing, asking small businesses to work for free is hurting the very population this large organisation claims to be helping.

What not to do

So, employees of large corporations, let’s get this straight: if you are a for-profit business — especially a big one — you do not ask small businesses to deliver their products and services for free.

Not in return for exposure. Not on the promise of further work. Not ever.

You can’t eat exposure. Banks and landlords won’t accept exposure as a fair replacement for mortgage or rent payments, and with good reason: it’s practically worthless.

Frankly, such a request is unconscionable. If you have done this, it’s time to change.

Let’s assume you’ve done it as a result of ignorance, not malicious intent. Let’s also assume you’re willing to acknowledge this and you want to do better.

If so, here’s some food for thought: it’s time you valued the work of small business.

You wouldn’t expect a plumber to work for free on the promise of ‘we’ll share your website with our thousands of employees, it’ll be great exposure for you’

When you ask someone to deliver their core business for free, you’re saying their work has no value.

Of course, the work of a plumber is obvious. You can see them swinging spanners and fixing leaks.

The more likely culprits for free requests are professions where the work is less visible.

Graphic design’s a corker for this. I’ve heard many moan about clients requesting free or ridiculously discounted work because ‘it’ll only take you a few minutes.’

You’re not paying for the ‘few minutes’.

You’re paying for the thousands of hours over which their skills and knowledge were honed, so they can do the job far quicker and better than you can.

Live your organisation’s values

The company that asked me for the free presentation wants to hire more women.

Just two months before this request came in, a member of their C-suite asked me to share recruitment opportunities with women in my network. This company is active in women in technology communities.

From now on, I won’t be sharing their roles or recommending their organisation as a place of work because I no longer believe they live up to their values.

You cannot be pro-economic empowerment for women and then ask them to deliver their core business for free. It’s hypocritical and demonstrates a lack of integrity.

The grey area

Not all speaking positions have to be paid.

You to ask people to speak for free in some circumstances. They may decline, but you could ask without insulting the business in situations such as:

  • For a panellist, where they don’t need to speak for long or deliver rehearsed content, or they have free reign over what they say;
  • When you’re running a charity or not-for-profit event;
  • When the person you’re inviting is an employee and part of their role is to represent their employer publicly at such events;
  • When paying would create a conflict of interest;
  • When the speaker is allowed to do a full sales pitch on stage or can talk about their paid offering exclusively; or
  • When the exposure is significant and tangible or brings great honour and credibility. (Spoiler alert: most exposure isn’t as significant as you think it is.)

Even when we tried Money Debates for the first time, we offered our speakers a small payment. It was tiny, but it showed we valued them.

Of the 40-plus speakers at that event, only five took up the offer of payment. The remainder were happy to forego payment to increase donations.

I don’t begrudge those five speakers, but the important thing is: they had a choice. It wasn’t assumed that they’d work for free.

I’m in the fortunate position of being able to accept such requests because I don’t rely on my business to fund my living costs. I can afford to do things for free if the cause is worthy — and I can afford to say no on moral grounds, as I did in the instance of this particular bank’s request.

I’m in the minority. Most small business owners do not have that luxury.

If Money Debates — a not-for-profit event run entirely by volunteers — can offer a speaker payment, all big businesses can too.

Not to do so would be to their great shame.

If you’re serious about closing the gender gap, put your money where your mouth is. Value small businesses by paying them for their work.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.


Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 months ago

I don’t understand. I honestly don’t. Maybe you can help me. The title and langauage throughout this article suggests this is some sort of gendered issue, yet you practically spell out yourself that it’s an issue of small businesses being exploited.

I completely agree that small businesses should not be asked to work for free. But how is this in any way a gendered problem? Why are you making this about gender? Do you realise that men run small businesses as well, and have these same experiences? I (as a professional working male) have experienced being asked to work for free by large companies, under the guise of bogus “internships” that are actually just free labour. Most of my male friends have experienced this. Many companies try and poach near-graduate university students for unpaid positions in exchange for “valuable learning opportunities”.

I know male graphic designers who have been asked to work for free in return for “exposure”. I know male friends who have been asked to give speeches on an exclusively volunteer basis. And of course, I know women who have experienced the same. My mother, as a medical professional and small business owner, being among them.

Point being, this is a very real issue, and I definitely sympathise with small business owners. But it’s staggeringly ironic that you complain about hypocrisy when you contradict your own point by trying to spin a gendered agenda on all of this. You know this has little to do with gender.

While we’re at it, I get infuriated by the (predominantly female) social media “influencers”, who do exactly this to small businesses: ask them to provide their services or products free of charge in exchange for “exposure” (which doesn’t pay the bills).