If you truly value the success of women in business, stop asking them to speak for free

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Imagine being offered a job with a profitable company. The job is your dream job; they’ve hired you as an industry expert based on the significant work you’ve done in your field and the unique skills you individually bring. Working with them presents a once in a lifetime opportunity that many others can only dream of. It means you’ll have to sacrifice other paid work and time away from your other clients, business and family to deliver exceptional results.

Imagine then being told that you won’t be paid for your work, but hired in exchange for ‘prestige’, ‘exposure’ and ‘networking opportunities’, while they make money off what you offer. After all, you may (or may not) generate other leads through this (leads which may or may not eventuate into paid work).

Who would ever accept or expect to go to work and not be paid for what they do?

This is an everyday reality for female entrepreneurs who are being asked and expected to work for free in a variety of ways, including speaking at events. Often, these very events are aimed at advancing women in business and leadership and are charging patrons thousands of dollars a ticket to soak up the brilliance of said speakers. These speakers share their time, thought leadership, IP, skills, experience, qualifications and all the value they have that deserves payment, without any. Female entrepreneurs whose very presence at these events attracts ticket sales for the organiser and contributes significantly to the credibility of the event.

It’s important to clear up that this isn’t to suggest giving generously isn’t valuable. There are many charities, causes, campaigns and not for profit initiatives that women love volunteering with and for. In fact, on the whole women do more unpaid work in our society than men, which undoubtedly impacts on their financial independence over a life time. What you’re happy to generously offer versus what you expect payment for will be individual.

What we’re specifically discussing here is the precedent of for-profit organisations not paying their speakers. While some for-profit events do fairly remunerate their speakers, the volume of those who ask and expect women to speak for free is so pervasive it’s astounding.

Reasons given for not paying speakers include:

  • ‘Our policy is not to pay speakers’ - without any valid explanation
  • ‘You will gain exposure and opportunities to network with other industry experts and may generate leads by speaking’ - all benefits that are value adds of any work you do, as opposed to tradable commodities
  • We don’t have the budget to pay you’ – when it’s not the speaker’s responsibility to volunteer their time in order to accommodate budgets. It’s the organiser’s responsibility to ensure they have the appropriate budget to fund the execution of the event (including hiring the talent they need to make it a success)

There have been instances where those who ask for payment are struck off the list in favour of those who will work without it. It’s created yet another environment where women are disempowered in their negotiating power because it’s become an ‘accepted norm’ that the choice is either do it for free or miss out.

The financial burnout in business is real and is a leading cause of business failure, driven by this narrative that women should be happy to work for free. Women who are already paid unequally to men, who are still in some cases financially dependent on men and who are far more likely to report their fees and value being questioned. Women who are again relegated into accepting that we must forgo economic equality to work ‘for the love of it’ and ‘the greater good’ of everyone, but ourselves.

This isn’t to suggest that men aren’t also accepting unpaid speaking opportunities, however there have been examples of women speaking for free when male speakers were paid for the same opportunity. This particular discussion is with reference to the success of women particularly in building financially sustainable businesses and the barriers that impact that.

It’s time for us all to re-evaluate and each and every business, leader and woman herself has the power to contribute.

Every time we ask women to work for free or create environments where the negotiating power of women is diminished, every time we as women accept working for free and every time we buy tickets to for-profit events that don’t pay their speakers, we contribute to holding women back from true economic equality.

The more women who stand up and ask to be paid their worth in business, the more businesses and leaders who pay women what they’re worth, the sooner being asked to work for free (or in exchange for ‘wine’, ‘products’, ‘tickets’, ‘exposure’) will become unacceptable.

Shevonne Joyce is a Mentor, Speaker and Social Commentator who positions women as the go-to brand in their industry.

Shevonne Joyce