Last year, a study by the United States Freelancers Union found that a majority of full-time freelancers are women. Particularly in creative industries, women are not only launching freelance careers but also thriving in them—forging support networks and working in a variety of disciplines rather than focusing on one area. Often, they're balancing freelance work with supporting a family, and working part time.
The research hints at a tantalising possibility that, rather than trying to fit into established career trajectories in industries riddled with gender inequities—pay gaps, confidence gaps, workplace sexism, sexual harassment—women can carve out their own niche as freelancers, and succeed outside of a system that's stacked against them. Instead of putting on a suit, climbing the career ladder and leaning in, Sheryl Sandberg-style, we can lead the revolution from bed, wearing pyjamas and answering emails on our laptops with episodes of House of Cards playing in the background.
Make Nice, a women-only 'un-conference' taking place in Sydney this week that aims to provide female creatives with valuable industry advice, has assembled its panellists with all this in mind. Coming from all over the world, speakers include freelancers who work across several creative disciplines at once, carving out what we've come to term 'co-careers' in multiple fields.
Freelancing benefits women as it sits outside of a system that was not made for us.
Co-director of Make Nice Ngaio Parr is a designer, illustrator and curator who defines the co-career mentality. Currently, she's designing a book on contemporary ceramics for Thames & Hudson, teaching a design subject at the University of Technology Sydney, creating a set of wine label illustrations, and plotting for a possible project in New York.
Ngaio sees freelancing as a kind of feminist act. "Freelancing benefits women as it sits outside of a system that was not made for us," she told me over the phone. "If I am working independently I have the power to work with the people I want to work with, in the way I want to work with them, and not to put up with some of the constraints that are so entrenched in traditional workplaces."
"I don't think it exclusively benefits women...but in general, women have to jump more hurdles in the traditional workplace, and some of these issues can be somewhat alleviated when working independently."
Before switching to freelancing, Ngaio worked office jobs in public and private art galleries. While the work was rewarding, the environment was often intimidating. "In my experience, studio and agency workplace cultures are more aligned with typically masculine traits," she says. "The push to work hard, party hard, and be 'one of the guys' just isn't as relevant or welcoming to many women, and it is a really difficult thing to change when you aren't at the top of the chain."
To find out more, I contacted some of the Make Nice panellists to talk about the pros and cons of freelance life. Melbourne-based writer and editor Brodie Lancaster told me that as a teenager, she thought she'd follow a more traditional career trajectory. Maybe work a government job, and save up to buy a house. But straight out of university, she started writing content for websites, which opened her eyes to the possibility of a different style of work.
"It's impossible to talk about the potential options we have as creative people now without giving credit to the internet," she says. "I think people really understand that it's possible to make a living doing a combination of things, that being in one job for decades isn't the only way to have security or job satisfaction."
Brodie has written for Rookie,Rolling Stone,Pitchfork,as well as VICE. She founded the feminist movie zine Filmme Fatales,and works four days a week as an editor. A passionate advocate of Kanye West and die-hard One Direction fan, she's also working on a pop culture memoir that's due out next year. You get the feeling that the 25-year-old doesn't have a whole lot of free time, and that's the way she likes it.
"In terms of balancing different practices, the cliché of women knowing how to juggle a lot of things is a cliché for a reason," she says. "Being able to plan and anticipate and prioritise are valuable skills when you have 18 jobs on the go at once."
Women, you might have heard, are good at multi-tasking. And historically, they've had to be. For hundreds of years, women have been forced to be effortlessly flexible. Juggle husbands and children and housework, while looking good doing it. Now, the rise of the freelancer reclaims that multi-tasking stereotype as an asset to female creativity.
Award-winning French designer Leslie David agrees. Living in Paris, her daily life is predicated on deftly switching between various unrelated tasks. She works in photography, collage, drawing and painting, and counts Nike, Chanel, A.P.C and Maison Kitsune as clients. Like Lancaster, she's got a lot going on right now. "I'm working right now on five different projects at the same time," she says. "it's kind of schizophrenic."
She says that the benefits of working for herself are innumerable. "Being in charge of your own time is a big thing. You can go see that crowded show in the middle of the afternoon, take a three day weekend without asking anybody, and when you have a family it's priceless to be able to take some time with your kid when you feel like it or just being able to bring them to the doctor and stay at home when they're sick."
For freelance documentary photographer and journalist Elize Strydom, freelancing came naturally. She says that she doesn't think a traditional career trajectory even exists in her industry anymore. "And if there is one," she says, "I don't think it's really relevant."
Currently she works an "almost-full-time job" four days a week as a radio news presenter and journalist. At the same time, she's also preparing for a group art show, making a photo book, editing a recent photo series for a wedding magazine, and planning overseas shoots.
Strydom thinks freelance co-careers are on the rise because jobs aren't as secure as they once were. "So many people are competing for positions," she says. "If you're a journalist it's no longer enough to simply write. You must be able to write and take photos, record video and audio, edit it all then put it online and promote it across your social media networks. It's rare for employers to hire a person to specialise in one creative area."
"It may also be the case that people are trying to make a go of one discipline which isn't necessarily paying the bills or putting food on the table just yet so they need to supplement their income."
This perspective adds a dose of reality. Many women work freelance not out of choice, but necessity. And there are plenty of downsides to a lifestyle that can be overwhelming, lonely, and disorientating. Nobody is there to give you advice or feedback, and the procrastination walks from your home office to the kitchen fridge can become a problem. The lack of structured working day means you'll be answering emails 24/7, working on weekends and evenings. Being a freelancer also means women don't have access to maternity leave services, and aren't putting money away in superannuation accounts.
And while choosing freelance work over life in an office may serve to help the careers of many women, Parr acknowledges that "another downfall is that we see less women in leadership roles in traditional workplaces... while I want to encourage women to make the right choice for their own circumstance, I'd love to see a shift in workplace culture that better supports them to explore those options too."
But for Parr, and one suspects many of the high powered creatives assembling for Make Nice, the liberating freedom of pursuing your own projects in your own time mitigates the pitfalls of freelance life. Once you become your own boss, it's hard to go back. "At the end of the day, I could always jump back onto the traditional model if I grew bored of an independent practice," she says. "I just don't see that happening anytime soon."
Make Nice: An Un-Conference for Creative Women is happening on Thursday 2nd June - Sat 4th June. Purchase tickets here.