We're all used to the idea that we have to earn our credibility, our expertise, and our reputation.We also know that there's a price placed on the accumulated experience and skills that we've built over time. Yet one tradition among women exists, undermining the give-and-take relationship of buying and selling that does each of us a disservice.
I'm talking about giving away the milk for free. Doing free work is damaging to our careers and I'd argue that asking for freebies from other women is just as bad, if not worse. As women, whether entrepreneurs, corporettes, or community leaders, we often expect our fellow sisters to do a task for some unclear or nonexistent future benefit. I caught up on this phenomenon recently with Lisa Gates, cofounder of SheNegotiates. Lisa aptly suggested, We're so inculcated in the model of trading and giving things away and I think this mentality really hurts us. Pay first, add value later might be a better motto. Certainly a vast improvement from the more common, Give now, ask questions later.
In my own line of work, I experience this trend firsthand. I make most of my living leading webinars, workshops and speeches for colleges and companies. In the course of a year, I'm asked, usually by women, to do a lot of these events at a rate of “you guessed it“ zero dollars. We're a non-profit, some groups will say. Our budget is miniscule, others explain. Still others apply pressure with, We've had years of speakers who were willing to do it for free. Even so, something for nothing does not equate to a deal and these organizations need to take a closer look at what they're asking of women.
This dynamic plays out in other ways too. One woman I know was asked to chair a time-consuming major corporate initiative ”from which the organization would greatly profit” without so much as a suggestion of pay increase or shuffling of her workload. By asking women to do these jobs and then by accepting them, we say to people that our time, energy, and discretionary effort are worth-less. It's true that we're taught by conventional career wisdom to over-deliver “to do more than we're asked“ yet doing so can sabotage, not help, us.
Whatever the reason, if you are asked to pitch in your research, skills, or accumulated experience without some type of compensation now or in the future, I hope you will consider the request very carefully, with a bent toward saying no. Better yet, why not use the opportunity as a chance to negotiate better, more favorable terms? Sketching out new terms and conditions opens up the possibility that you'll find options where there were none and that you'll get more than you even ask for. Your compensation requirement, whatever you negotiate that it be, adds some teeth to the deal.
If you have a problem asking for compensation, realize that the effect of not getting paid extends beyond you. If I give a speech to a student-run college club of women for example, and I tell them my expertise costs nothing, what am I teaching them about themselves? What am I saying about how they should conduct themselves in the future or estimate their own worth? Of course, I'm not talking about charity and pro bono type work, which is an exception; I am talking about freely giving away our expertise that we've worked hard to build.
I can speak from experience that while it doesn't feel good to let down or disappoint a potential client, mutual gain ”and sometimes mutual concession” are part of healthy, functional business relationships. I uphold and endorse the idea of women helping other women. In fact, in my books and columns, I implore us to do more of it. But let's realize we're eroding women's credibility, not building it, when we take their work for granted. Want to do something that really helps women? Put a price on their contributions.
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