Episode 52: When women work for free

November 18, 2014

"If you don't believe in yourself, if you don't believe you're worth what you're charging, other people won't - they'll smell that fear and they'll try to haggle you down." - Adrienne Graham

"There is an expectation in some ways that women are going to give, that we're going to be supportive. It's how we're raised, and the messages we get." - Kathy Caprino

19 minutes.

Women have a problem valuing themselves - both setting prices and believing they're truly worth something in the marketplace. A lot of us charge too little for our work. Sometimes we don't charge at all. Adrienne Graham

It's a complicated, multi-layered issue, and it's part of the reason women earn less than men. As someone who squirms whenever I have to talk about how much I'm worth, I knew I had to tackle the topic on the show. I talk to businesswomen Adrienne Graham, author of a viral Forbes post, No, You Can't Pick My Brain, It Costs Too Much, and Kathy Caprino, who's written extensively about women's relationship with money. If you too find it tough to name your price, tune in - both women have great insights into how we can get comfortable charging what we're worth, and working out what that is in the first place.

Kathy Caprino

Further reading: You can use this link to get to Adrienne Graham's Pick My Brain Tour page and get a reduced-price ticket by entering the code broadbrain. She's written a book with the same title as her famous article.

Kathy Caprino wrote this post on LinkedIn about how people can stop being angry at requests for free help. You can discover all her Forbes pieces here.

My first blog post on this topic of women working for free is here and the second is here.

Career Foundry: How to Price Yourself as a Freelancer.

Financial Times artice: Women Earn Less than Men, Even when they Set the Pay.

Forbes: Even When Women Write their Own Checks, Gender Pay Gap Persists.

Project Eve: Why Women Run Smaller Businesses than Men.

My NPR story on women's ability to negotiate well for others, less well for themselves.



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show: why do so many women have a hard time putting a value on their work?

“If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t believe you’re worth what you’re charging, other people won’t, they’ll smell that fear and they’ll try to haggle you down.”

And how do you respond to those requests to pick your brain over coffee?

“If it’s really people wanting to pick your brain and they’re not coming to the table with anything, they’re not offering to barter, they’re not thinking of paying, there’s ways to respond to that.”

Coming up – when women work for free.

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Earlier year I was on Forbes.com one day and I came across a post that really got me thinking. It was called No, You Can’t Pick My Brain – It Costs Too Much.

It was by an Atlanta businesswoman called Adrienne Graham and it basically said, I run my own business and I have been overrun by people who want to talk on the phone or meet for coffee so they can pick my brain – essentially they want me to give them advice for free. Here’s why I say no and here are some tips for you to set boundaries. 

The reason that article made me think so much is that I recognized my own tendency to want to help people…and my own tendency to totally undervalue my work and give away time for nothing. And when you are freelance like I am, time really is money.

And I’ve had more of these kinds of queries lately: people, sometimes individuals, sometimes companies, who want to ask my advice about women and the workplace, or who want to find out more about podcasting. But they couch it in terms of ‘can you chat on the phone?’ or ‘can you meet for coffee?’

And I have to explain that I’ve built up expertise in these areas and this is actually part of how I earn my living. I charge a consulting fee for my time. But I tend to feel awkward about this declaration.  And I know I am not the only woman who finds it tough to talk about what she’s worth.

So I got in touch with the author of that Forbes post, Adrienne Graham, and we got on Skype. She actually wrote the post three years ago but it keeps popping back up like it did for me this year. It’s proved so popular she has now written a book and launched a speaking tour on this exact topic. Her company is called Adrienne Graham Ventures.

Here’s how the whole thing started. In her business, she was switching tack from a focus on recruiting to concentrating on consulting about business growth strategies. And because she was re-focusing her business she thought well, OK, I’ll talk to some people over coffee because that’s how you build up your business, right? You give away your expertise for a while and then people come back? But that’s not how things worked out. The tactic backfired on her. She was losing money fast.

“And it just started grating on me because when you have a child and when you have mortgage payments and bills due, you can’t pay your bills with niceties and pleasantries and advice So one morning I got up and thought my business is sinking, I’m sinking, I might to lose my home, what am I gonna do? And I just got frustrated because all the other people that I had spoken to or given advice to, these others were killing it in their businesses, they were taking off.  I didn’t get a thank you, I didn’t get a referral, I didn’t get an offer to pay. So one Saturday morning I got up and all of this was weighing on my mind, and I just released all this energy into this blog post.”

The comments began pouring in and they haven’t stopped. And while most are along the lines of ‘you go girl’…some are critical, calling her ungenerous. But Adrienne points out she charges clients good money for her advice – so how would they feel if they knew she was giving the same advice to another person over coffee, for nothing? These days her business is doing well. She says it is vital to believe that what you know – all that expertise you’ve acquired – is valuable.  

I said I really feel it’s women who have a problem valuing themselves. Or is it just that men don’t talk about it?

“OK, well I hate to assign gender to it, I really try to stay out of that area. But let’s do it. A lot of my women clients come to me after they’ve read my book or the article and they say this is a really sticky point for me, where I can’t monetize my intellectual property, or my content, or people are not valuing me. Because women feel nurturing for the most part. The majority of us are moms. So that’s one thing, by nature we are nurturers, we want to be able to hold hands and help people. And that’s great, that’s a beautiful thing.”

But not so much when that instinct to help people overrides your ability to charge. And even though I do not have children I absolutely have this nurturing trait.

“Second thing is we are taught, if you look at these marketers out there, they have conditioned the market or the general population that you have to give something for free in order to get something. And with all this let me give you my free e-book, my free this, free that’, women feel like we have to compete. And the third thing is the confidence thing: sometimes people feel, ‘If I charge too much I might alienate a whole segment of people.’ Well guess what, you don’t have to worry about that. As a business owner, you have your target market, that’s who you should be focusing on. Women get distracted by the details. You need to focus in on not making friends with everyone but being able to fulfill the needs and services that your customers need, everyone else is secondary.”

So there.

And I appreciate Adrienne’s allusion to the people pleaser that lives in so many of us. How often have you made a decision you knew was about keeping up your ‘nice’ credentials rather than helping you achieve something you needed to?

My problem is basically that: it’s the nice police.  And there’s been plenty of research done on this, especially with regard to women’s ability to negotiate for a raise. Women have been found to negotiate just as well as guys when they negotiate for another person. But when they ask for money for themselves, they aim lower. The reason: social backlash. Women expect to be judged poorly for aiming high – after all they know society expects them to be selfless beings, so they temper their ask. And they get a lower offer.

I think it’s the same thing here: I fear offending people when I explain yes, we can talk about this, but you need to pay me – some voice in my head tells me, who do you think you are to charge for your knowledge? I tried to explain all this to Adrienne…

AM-T: “This is the kind of thing that kicks in and hampers me is this, this weird...It’s almost an inability to value myself. Not that I couldn’t sit down and do it. But it’s tough to actually say I want to be paid what I consider my worth. And then there are these underneath things of , do you even believe you’re worth that much? It’s complicated, it goes really deep I think.”

“Well two things: you can be nice and firm. People make the assumption because of the tone of the article that I’m a mean person. I’m far from it. I just know what my worth is. If this was a day job I wouldn’t be haggling with my boss about what I’d be making. Second, my dad had a saying: a closed mouth don’t get fed. If you don’t believe you’re worth what you’re charging other people won’t, they’ll smell that fear and they’ll try to haggle you down. When I first started my first business, my recruiting firm, I was very new, very green, I had no connections. I just picked up the phone and started cold calling. Reached out, finally got this ad agency and the CEO of the agency decided to take my call. And I was very excited. I won’t go into the details but every time I threw out a price he said, oh, no, doesn’t work for me. Because I wanted to snag a client I agreed every time he lowered. He got me down to 11 %. My fee at that time was supposed to be 33%. He said, OK, 11% is good. Then he said let me stop you right there: I’m not going to do business with you. He said did you learn anything yet? He said you never, ever, ever discount yourself, you never let anybody diminish your worth right before your eyes. He said if you have a price, you stand firm in your price and let them see that you are confident in what you have to give. He said in essence because I came down so much on my price so much, I was telling him I wasn’t worth it.”

That taught her a lesson. And it’s helped to keep her focused.

AM-T: “You also, in the piece, um, I notice that one of the points you make is for people’s websites, you say ‘prominently post that there are no freebies’. One of the things I notice about your own site is that unlike so many other consultants, you post on the site what your fees are, you’re not hiding behind call me and we’ll talk, you have your fees right there on the website.”

“Yes, you have to. And another thing I do, I never leave home without my fee schedule, I keep it on my iPad, it’s always within reach, I never leave home without it. But yeah, I don’t believe in all that not sharing your fees, no, people want to play these games. I don’t have time. I have so many people calling and emailing me. I have three companies I’m running, I teach, I mentor, I speak, I’m a mom. I don’t have time to play games. So I want them already, when they come to me they’ve already done their research, they’ve made their decision, they know exactly the value I bring to them and they’re ready to get to work. The ones who are scared by my fees, they’re not meant to be my clients.”

She has no regrets.

Now we all know there’s a pay gap between men and women. But there’s also evidence that even when women are paying themselves as entrepreneurs, they pay themselves less than male business owners do. A recent Financial Times article looked at this and there have been other studies too. One reason cited is that women may not need the money as much as a male entrepreneur because they have a spouse who’s earning more. Also it’s said that women simply don’t care as much as men about getting top dollar – they want to do good by the business before earning a lot. But the other possibility is that women just do not value themselves or their work as much as men do theirs.

Next, I spoke to Kathy Caprino about this. Regular listeners know Kathy. She’s a career coach based in Connecticut and she does a ton of writing about these issues for Forbes and the Huffington Post.  She herself has come up against others’ expectations about her status as a woman in a business that’s all about helping other people. Some don’t seem to think it’s a business at all.

“I had a funny thing happen a few years ago. A neighbor of mine told a friend, ‘Kathy charges because she has to charge.’ I had to laugh. I charge because I run a business…and I’m in the business of serving others and generating income. But there is an expectation in some ways that women are gonna give, be supportive, it’s how we’re raised, and the messages we get. But the most important thing isn’t to blame society and culture. It’s to look at yourself and look at how comfortable are you charging? I work with a lot of women and they’re not comfortable. They went into this because it’s a service business and they want to be of help. And charging top dollar can be very jarring. There’s process they have to go through to be comfortable charging and not offering everything for free.”

She says you can’t just pick prices out of the air. You need to do a lot of competitive research. Find out what other people with similar businesses are charging. What exactly do they offer, and how are you different? What can you guarantee you’ll deliver to your clients? 

“And then you start setting what those prices are and you start offering that, and you start doing the work of the pushback – there will be pushback, but let’s face it, money’s tight for a lot of people today, there will be pushback: oh, do I really have to have 10 sessions for $3500, can it be less? You’ve got to learn to get comfortable that yeah, this is what I’m worth, and sure we can talk about this, that and the other thing, but you’ve got to set the boundaries and live with it.”

That, I needed to hear.

I also wanted to ask Kathy about the whole ‘can I pick your brain?’ question. As someone who has a public profile she does hear from a lot of strangers, many of whom just assume she’ll help them out. She says she had a major revelation about this a few years ago...

“…when a post went viral and I got 300 requests a day from people a day to look at their LinkedIn profile for free. And I got mad. And after the third day my husband came in and said you’ve got to find a way not to get mad at this. And that was such the light bulb. I thought oh, he’s so right. From that day to this I’ve done a lot of work about it: don’t get mad and don’t get resentful. I’ve seen a million posts so snarky about this and I wrote one. People don’t know your business model – they see you write, they want some help and they’re desperate. That’s all. So get over being mad. We have to educate them on what we offer and what we charge. That’s our job. We don’t have to expect that they’re going to peruse our website for 10 minutes and find our prices. But when people ask me to meet and they do, here’s how I view it: is it going to be a connection that is mutually beneficial? And if so, in fact this week I am meeting with someone in my town who’s got a wonderful nutrition business and works with a ton of women, and it’s gong to be very beneficial for both of us to chat about how we can help eachother. But if it’s people wanting to pick your brain and they’re not offering anything, they’re not offering to barter, they’re not thinking of paying, there’s ways to respond to that. I have a pre-written response, which is totally true, which says ‘Due to the very high volume for free help that I receive, I’m unable to give you tailored recommendations if you’re not my client’, and the reason for that is to offer effective guidance I have to know a lot more, and that takes time and commitment. On the other hand here are my free resources. And Ashley, that is a key component – if people want to be of help and they don’t just want to be of help to people that have a lot of money, then to have free resources available – downloads, guides, webinars, audio – it’s so powerful. Because now you’re able to say I’m sorry I can’t give you my personal time but I have these wonderful free resources.”

This is something Adrienne Graham does too. It’s a way of maintaining good will but making clear any deeper engagement will command a fee. And to be clear, each has done her fair share of free speaking gigs for good causes.

Kathy says there’s one more thing she finds useful when it comes to these coffee meetings – to meet, or not to meet? She usually doesn’t, but she says if you do think the person might be worth meeting with because each of you could learn something, or because you’re just really motivated to help, consider this:

“Often women find it challenging to come out very straightforwardly and say ‘this is what I want in return’. But when you give of yourself for free, at the end when they say thanks so much, you can say, oh, I enjoyed it, and there’s something you can do for me, and then you state it. ‘I’m looking for more sponsors for my podcast,’, or I want to do a TV show around women, so make sure you have that ask: this is what I’d really love in return. I’ve never had it where they don’t say they’re going to help. They try to reciprocate in a way that is very meaningful to you.”

I’ll link you to some of Kathy’s pieces about this topic and to Adrienne Graham’s post under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. 

You can also get a discounted ticket to Adrienne Graham’s Pick My Brain tour via a link at The Broad Experience.com. That tour kicks off in the southeastern US in December.

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That’s the show for this time.  Thanks again to April Laissle for all her help and for being one of the first people to sport a Broad Experience T-shirt. I’ll make an official T-shirt announcement in an upcoming show.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.