Over the course of my career, I've lost count of the things that have exhausted me: the security guard who told me to smile every morning, the senior male colleague who cornered me at after-work drinks to tell me about his sexual exploits, having to remember to bring a jumper in high summer because it’s always too cold in the office.
I hadn't quite reached the 10-year mark in my career when I felt drained – physically and mentally. Career death by a thousand gendered cuts. And then, in 2017, I got made redundant and went freelance.
Paradoxically, I've never felt more empowered as a woman in the workforce. I’ve reached career milestones – like bylines in publications I’ve always wanted to write for – long before I expected to, I’m financially stable and work in a way that gives me the space to prioritise other things, like my mental wellbeing.
Initially, I thought that I was just built for freelancing – an introvert who works better alone; a nerd who loves to organise; an only child who likes to get their own way. I had internalised all the insidious ways that workplaces didn’t work for me and concluded it was me who wasn’t working 'properly'.
The further into self-employment I got, the more women I met and the more stories of empowerment I heard.
But the further into self-employment I got, the more women I met and the more stories of empowerment I heard: the wheelchair user who was never sure if she was being discriminated against because she was disabled, a woman or both, and now doesn't have to worry about scheduling her working day around her medical appointments. The working mum who was burned out and found meaning in her work again. The former public servant whose self-confidence grew so much after working for herself that she left her husband.
With buzzwords like 'side hustle', 'burnout' and 'portfolio career' flying around the internet, it would be easy to correlate the rise in freelancing with the emergence of the gig economy and characterise it all as a millennial phenomenon. And while the number of self-employed workers aged 16 to 24 has almost doubled since 2001, that’s only half the picture. It’s simply not true that this is all about millennials looking to turn their Instagram terrarium business into a full-time job.
The latest statistics show that people are going freelance and finding it professionally and personally more fulfilling than traditional employment. The UK's self-employed workforce has been growing since 2001, with the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) finding that over 15% of the working population is self-employed. According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), the sector contributed £275 billion to the UK economy in 2018.
And according to IPSE, it’s actually a 63% rise in highly skilled female freelancers that has driven the UK’s freelance boom over the last 10 years. The increase, which represents a group larger than the entire population of Nottingham, takes the number of senior-level women freelancing in the UK to 863,000. They’ve also found that the number of freelancing mothers has grown by 80% since 2008. These women aren’t just journalists like me, they work across all freelancer occupational groups, including managerial and senior positions, professional occupations and associate professional and technical occupations.
Learning this, I’ve started to see this pivot to freelance for what it is – a glaringly feminist issue which raises a difficult question: Is the way to achieve true equality at work to have women leave traditional employment in their thousands?
Like many women who go freelance, 33-year-old Claire Gamble did so after having children. Five years ago, she was working in a high-pressure senior role at a busy PR agency in Manchester when she had her first child.
"I just couldn't see how I could make a busy job work with having a young family, even with nursery," Claire told me.
Feeling burned out, Claire says that her freelance ambitions were modest – it was only supposed to be a way to top up her income and hold on to a semblance of her identity by working as well as being a mum. But then some time away from office politics and the flexibility of setting her own hours quickly made her fall back in love with her work.
"The opportunities that I've been able to create for myself have been better than those given to me by any employer during my working life," she said. Claire now runs a virtual PR agency, speaks at national conferences and all the while is able to spend quality time with her children.
Claire is one of the 304,000 freelancer mothers who account for around 15% of the total freelancer population in the UK. Chloe Jepps, deputy head of research at IPSE, told me that flexibility was the motivator for 91% of female freelancers. "It's a much more flexible way of working," Jepps said, "whereas traditional employment doesn't allow for that level of flexibility."
When we talk about flexibility, though, what we’re really talking about is autonomy. Claire articulated something that I, even as someone without children, have always struggled with in the workplace – always needing to ask for permission, as an adult, to do basic things like go to the doctor.
"I've had offers for permanent jobs, and they've said, 'We know you've got young kids, if you want days off, all you have to do is ask.' But I don't want to have to ask, I like to be in control of my own time," she said.
Yet self-employed autonomy comes at a high price. There is no statutory maternity pay or maternity leave for freelancers. There is a state-provided benefit, maternity allowance, which self-employed women may be eligible for and which pays £148.68 a week for 39 weeks, but you have to meet complex criteria to get that full rate and if you don't, you only get £27 a week.
By contrast, if you work for a company with good employee benefits, you could get anything up to 36 weeks leave at full pay. At a minimum, all employers are obliged to cover statutory maternity pay for 39 weeks, which is paid as 90% of your pre-tax weekly earnings for the first six weeks and then £148.68 for the next 33 weeks.
The investment company Fidelity International did research into the self-employed sector and found that one in four self-employed women worry they would not be able to afford to go on maternity leave, while 61% said they were worried about not being able to save enough for the future.
There are no two ways about it: if you become self-employed as a woman, you will take a financial hit.
As a body that represents freelancers and the self-employed, IPSE is campaigning for the government to bring maternity allowance in line with maternity pay. "There needs to be a more equal level of maternity pay compared to employees," Chloe Jepps told me. "That flat rate is not reflective of people’s earnings, nor is it enough."
The lack of parental leave provision is just the tip of the freelancing financial iceberg – freelancers also have no holiday pay or sick leave. There's no employer to top up pension contributions – if they even make them in the first place. And it's women who suffer more from this. Fidelity also found that self-employed men are more likely than self-employed women to have both a workplace pension from a previous employer, as well as a private pension.
Despite this, all the freelance mothers I spoke to said the flexibility to spend time with their children far outweighed the financial consequences of losing out on more generous maternity packages and long-term savings. As one 30-year-old freelancing mum I spoke to put it simply: "In the long run, it’s worth it." Hearing this and realising that I hold a similar view has led me to see traditional work culture for what it really is: not designed for women.
On the face of it, then, freelancing gives working mothers the control they need to have a fulfilling family and professional life. It’s a boon for female empowerment. Except there’s an uncomfortable truth lurking here as well: women would rather put themselves in a vulnerable financial position than have to put up with the dissatisfaction of working in traditional employment.
Unsurprisingly, there’s not been a whole lot of research into why this is the case. One of the more detailed studies is from 2003, when researchers from New York University looked at why women and minorities were turning to entrepreneurship as a solution to the frustration and discontent they associated with corporate life.
"The same stereotyped conceptions that plague women and minorities within the walls of corporate America exist outside of those walls as well," the paper's authors wrote. "But there is no question that when on one's own these problems seem more manageable, and the solutions to them seem more under one's control, than when 'stuck' at the mercy of others in the corporate setting."
The paper’s recommendation was that the onus needs to be on corporate culture, not workers, to adapt. "Without positive action aimed at creating organisational settings that facilitate the personal and professional goals of women and minorities, organisations may be discouraging the very people whom they most want to retain from moving on to what they see as greater opportunity at less personal cost," it said.
Reading that paper – which was written five years before I had even started work – was as depressing as it was illuminating. For all the glib online chatter about embracing your #sidehustle or becoming a self-employed #girlboss, women have been turning to self-employment as a solution to career dissatisfaction for as long as corporate culture has existed. It was a reminder that women have only been a significant part of the workforce since the 1960s and that we still have a long way to go to fix the broken systems we entered into.
That’s about more than maternity pay, too. A few years ago, I asked the company I worked for if I could work from home one day a week. They said no because if I were allowed to do this, other employees would ask too and they "couldn't be trusted to work unsupervised".
The irony, now that I work for myself, is that I do so from home all the time and I’m more productive than I’ve ever been. And I’m not the only one – a recent YouGov and HSBC survey found that 89% of British workers believe flexible working boosts their productivity. At the same time, companies aren’t meeting that demand. According to data from LinkedIn, while 57% of companies say they allow employees to work remotely, it is only for some of the time; 23% of them said they only allow it under special circumstances.
We’re working longer and longer hours, which shows how much our jobs are now taking us away from our lives. For modern workers, careers are an undeniably huge part of our identities, but they cannot be our whole lives.
For Beth*, the fulfilment and flexibility she found in freelance work led to tackling a difficult situation in her personal life. Beth used to work for a government agency before she took voluntary redundancy.
"Because I was freelance, I was seen as the easy option for providing the childcare, doing the household admin and taking on way more than my fair share of emotional labour that goes into making a family work," she told me.
She described an occasion where she took on a contract that took her out of the house for a few days and she ended up paying for a cleaner out of her income because she wasn’t home to do it herself and her husband wouldn’t do it. She felt caught in a catch-22: she was the one expected to take care of the household responsibilities, preventing her from excelling in her career.
As Beth’s freelance business grew, so did her financial independence. She found herself in a position where she was able to address something she was running away from – that she was unhappy in her marriage. "It gave me the confidence to leave my husband," she said. "Being able to work on my terms was what I needed to see that I could make my work actually work for me."
She added: "As long as the expectation is that the woman bears the child and therefore has the majority of the responsibility towards them, they will struggle to stay as present in the workforce in the same way men do."
As I heard these stories from self-employed women, I was reminded of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s mantra: "If family comes first, work does not come second. Life comes together."
In 2012, Slaughter – the ultimate portfolio career woman, an international lawyer, policy analyst and political scientist – set the internet alight with her essay in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All". The grim premise was that if Slaughter, a well educated, privileged white woman, couldn't balance her high-flying career with her family life, there wasn’t a hope in hell for anyone else.
"I realised what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had," she wrote. "The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office – at least not for very long."
A footnote in Slaughter’s essay is that, before she entered government, she had it all. She held a tenured professor position at Princeton University, which enabled her to set her own schedule and, as a result, spend more time with her family.
I often think about how academic life has all the perks of freelancing, plus the financial security of employment. Wouldn't it be great if 'tenured freelancer' was an actual job?
Think about it: you’d have all the security of employment, but the autonomy of working for yourself. In this career utopia I’ve imagined, I’d be happy working for an employer, and even in an office, if it meant retaining the core values important to me.
The question, then, is not what women need to do to fix work culture but how work culture needs to change to accommodate us all. Wouldn’t it be great if work actually worked.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities