I Can't Believe I Have to Say This, But No I Will Not Work for Free
Capitalism is a minefield for exploitation. Employers have immense power over what employees can do, how they spend their time, even how they communicate. It’s one of the reasons I went into business for myself.
But being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean I’m immune to the exploitation of capitalism. Over the past year I’ve found myself in a couple situations that felt sneakily exploitative. In particular, people were wanting me to work for free.
I’m not about that.
As a woman, I’ve been expected to work for free my entire life. I’ve been taught to do the emotional and physical labor of taking care of others no matter what. I’ve been taught that I am the value of what I produce—in the kitchen, in the home, from my uterus. In the workplace I already get paid less than a man, meaning a secret discount has been factored into every paycheck I’ve ever gotten. And I’m cis, straight, and white—my privilege means my discount is less gouging than that of my BIPOC, LGBTQ+, trans, and non-binary counterparts.
For me, running my own business is about empowerment. It’s about choosing how I spend my time and who I give it to.
I’m not against donating work as a concept. Moxie is a member of 1% for the Planet; I give both financial contributions and in-kind donations. But this is on my own terms. I agreed to this, I sought out the opportunity because it’s something I believe in. I’m also not against trades that feel fair to both parties involved. I love creative, equitable trades.
What I’m against is getting manipulated into working for free. Getting into situations where I’m gaslit into believing I have autonomy...but then somehow finding myself donating my time and energy anyway. Getting into situations where someone promises a priceless opportunity that will open up doors for future work.
I’m also against the expectation that we’re supposed to give a boundless amount of our time and energy through the guise of an “interview process” so someone can deem us worthy—or not—of being paid for our work.
With all due respect, fuck that.
One of the gauntlets of entrepreneurship is setting rates. For those who don’t run their own business, there is much, much more to this than it seems.
First there are the obvious factors, the logistics: figuring out how much to charge per hour and how long a project takes. Creating packages that fit both what I want to be delivering and what clients need. Then there’s doing competitor research to figure out what people similar to me are charging. But deeper than all of this is an internal dialogue about value and worth. The process brings up questions like, “How much is my time worth per hour? How do I quantify my value in dollars? Am I good enough to be charging as much as so-and-so? Will they think I’m stuck up for raising my rates?”
Once I go through that journey and land on some numbers that feel reasonable, there’s the actual pitching of them to a client. “Will they balk at the cost? What if they say it’s too expensive? Or maybe they won’t bat an eye...am I undercharging? Am I selling myself short? ” Eventually, someone will say yes to the rates that I’m pitching, which will confirm that yes, I am worth what I’m charging. People are willing to pay me for my time and expertise.
Gradually, my confidence builds. I get more comfortable talking about money with my clients and colleagues. I adjust my rates depending on the offering or the client. As I create new packages, I go through a mini version of this journey again, but I’m more sure of myself this time. I’ve been pitching rates for years and people pay them. I feel like I’m really stepping into my own.
And then someone expects me to work for free.
All that shit about self-worth and value and doubt comes bubbling back up to the surface. This time, I’m not just doubting myself. I’m also indignant. “If other people are willing to pay me what I’m worth, why aren’t you? Am I not really worth the amount I thought I was? Am I putting off an impression that I can be taken for granted? Or are you just an ass?”
I try to remind myself it’s not the person, it’s conditioning. We’ve all been brought up in capitalism; this is what we’ve been taught. We’ve gone through interview processes that exploited our time and energy and ultimately left us empty-handed, left us feeling like we’re undeserving. If we never learned an alternative way of hiring, how would we know to change the process?
The real problem is when someone thinks they’re approaching hiring from an equitable lens but still pulling that shit. And then gaslighting people into thinking their feelings are unjustified.
Before pursuing writing full-time, I taught Pilates. I saw a couple different pay structures for classes: some studios wanted us to be at the studio for class even when no one was signed up online because people would walk in. They’d pay us a flat rate for 0 to 1 students and an additional rate for every student who came. Other studios (ones that required students sign up online) would pay a flat rate per student starting at 1. Meaning if no one signed up for class, we didn’t have to be there. We didn’t get paid, but we also got the hour off. Both felt fair.
I worked for one studio owner who expected us to take the shitty outcome of both scenarios.
She required her teachers to show up at the studio even if no one was signed up for the class, but she wouldn’t pay us unless someone showed up. The online scheduling system we used had a ton of glitches, so sometimes people would walk in without coming up in our system. She wanted the studio to be there for the clients but wasn’t prepared to support her staff in doing so.
I taught a couple 6am classes per week and attendance was spotty (she didn’t do much marketing). I’d drag myself out of bed, bike to the studio in the dark, open up the space, and get ready for a class that may or may not actually occur. If no one showed up, I’d close back up and go home without getting paid. My time and commitment to our clients was worth $0. If someone did show up, I’d get paid a shitty rate to teach a one-person class I was bitter about leading in the first place.
I voiced my dissent to the policy, proposing that we get paid a flat rate for 0 to 1 students. The owner told me “Good Pilates teachers need to build up their following” and “It’s not for everyone.” And yet she was doing nothing to support her staff or expand the studio’s client base.
I knew in my gut this policy was bogus, but she was in charge; she had the power. And she was telling me I was wrong.
Still, I didn’t stick around long.
If you’re an employer or team leader, I encourage you to think very carefully before asking people to donate their time. Be wary of using terms like “team player” or sentiments such as “It will pay off in the long term.” Please be especially careful about who you say those things to. Are you more tempted to ask a woman to do additional organizational or admin work? Are you more willing to pile extra work onto the BIPOC or trans person’s plate? Do you justify this by telling yourself they enjoy it, they’re good at it, or they don’t mind?
Notice your tendencies with curiosity and compassion for yourself. You were brought up in a toxic culture, too. It’s not your fault, but this is an opportunity to course-correct.
If you’re an employee or an entrepreneur and you feel like you’re getting taken advantage of, trust yourself. Don’t let yourself be fooled by manipulative language. Test the waters of standing up for yourself to the extent that it feels safe to do so.
If your employers or colleagues see themselves as allies, you might want to invite them into a discussion about how their actions are counterproductive to the world they’re trying to work towards. You might want to—this of course requires free emotional labor of its own.
This is all easier the more privilege you have, and I’m speaking from a place of relative privilege. So let me put it this way: white cis men, if you spot exploitation, please stand up to it on behalf of all of us. People will be more likely to trust your opinions and the repercussions you face will be less dire than for others.
For my friends in more marginalized groups, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up for yourself, ask for advice or support from someone you trust.
I’d love to support you in sussing out your feelings and be a sounding board if you feel like you’re being manipulated. I’ll even help you figure out talking points if you decide to have a conversation.
That, my friends, is the kind of work I’d be willing to do for free.