Women, stop giving it away for free

Journalist and broadcaster Tracey Spicer.

Journalist and broadcaster Tracey Spicer. Photo: Damian Bennett

We need to stop giving it away for free. You know what I'm talking about: Unpaid work, pro bono projects, and endless internships.

Women already work 62 days a year for free, because of the 17.1 per cent gender pay gap. So why are we expected to put up our hands for more of these so-called “opportunities”?

It seems little has changed since the early 1900s, when Mahatma Gandhi described women as, “the living embodiment of the spirit of service and sacrifice”. I am one of the worst offenders: A first-born daughter, bleeding-heart, people pleaser. It's taken 46 years for me to open the window, stick out my head, and shout, “Enough!”

I'm not talking about the 12 charities for which I am an ambassador or patron.


There are emotional, and intellectual, reasons why I choose to represent these organisations. Studies show there's a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from volunteering.  What worries me is the pressure on women to work out-of-hours to further their careers.

Up to 77 per cent of unpaid internships are held by women, according to US figures. Often, they're in female-dominated industries where the pay scale is lower.

As Madeleine Schwartz writes in the journal, Dissent, “Compliant, silent and mostly female, these interns have become the happy housewives of the working world”. Or, the modern version of the 'canteen lady'. Predictably, it's the same for pro bono work.

A study of law firms in the US found women do, on average, four hours more per year than men.  And it's not just when we're starting out.

Radio broadcaster Tess Vigeland writes about her midlife career change: “As someone who presumably proved her mettle over 20-plus successful years in broadcasting, I wasn't prepared to hear that making money was not as important as getting myself “out there” and working for free in order to "varnish my brand.”

How edifying, to be compared with a can of Silvo.

If I had a penny for every time I'd been asked to work for free over the past three decades – well – I'd be a rich woman.

Last week, I received an email that made my head explode. It came from a private company, which wanted me to contribute to a panel in the lead-up to International Women's Day. The last line was this: “Unfortunately, we have no budget for this event, but it will be a terrific opportunity for you to enhance your brand on social media!”

(By the way, the facilitator of the panel was a man. Obviously, women are too emotional to be able to manage such a discussion…)

The following day, I was maligned on social media by someone who wanted me to attend her business networking event: “Too busy to support other women, are we?” As the convener of Women in Media I am a passionate supporter of mentoring and networking. But we have to learn to value our time: It is money, after all.

Unfortunately, we're stymied from the start. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the pay gap between female and male university graduates in Australia has more than doubled in recent years

Men's starting salaries have increased to $55,000 while women's are stalled at $50,000. Then, our career paths are punctuated by rearing children, or caring for elderly parents. A woman of 25 will earn almost 50 per cent less over her lifetime than a man of the same age. This shortfall totals $1-1.5 million.

Don't even get me started on asking for a pay rise. I'm ashamed to admit that, during my 16 years at Network Ten, I never asked for more money. Why? Because I wanted to be the “good girl”.

A combination of self-sacrifice, and structural discrimination, leads to men being paid bonuses twice as big as women's.  This creates a perfect storm, in which we are condemned to a rocky retirement. The MLC Retirement Report reveals women end up with 40 per cent less superannuation than men.

Shockingly, one in four women will have little, or no, super, at a time when the federal government is considering cutting the aged pension. Let's make a pledge this International Women's Day to demand to be paid what we're worth.

Instead of doing two-third of the world's work for less than 10 per cent of the wages. The next time someone asks you to do something at work, remember this: Don't give it away for free.

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  • Thought provoking article Tracey, thank you.

    No question, the typically female dominated professions (teaching, nursing, child-care, social services) are chronically under-paid and under-valued. Unfortunately most of these are publicly funded so difficult to see dramatic change anytime soon.

    I would, however, contend that barriers to entry into almost all professions have dropped dramatically. My daughter can see no reason why she can't aspire to do anything she wants, nor anything her male contemporaries aspire to.

    Many larger organisations now have proactive programs to support and promote women. But is it fair to exclude men - as I was - from a role because there is a KPI to hit for female representation?

    Also, I don't think it's just a female phenomenon to be asked/pressured by charities and other NFP's to support and participate in events...have done this myself to men and women alike :)

    yes and no
    Date and time
    March 07, 2014, 9:54AM
    • The unpaid internship was a brilliant invention in the US to keep low paid workers who couldnt afford to go without pay or support their kids (or partners) for 6 months in an internship. (In America this reinforces keeping of jobs to the plutocracy. No longer equality of opportunity). Unfortunately it has now spread to Australia. What it results in is a filter where the only people who can get a job in these internships are those with other financial means of support - parents or partners - and the result is that these jobs become limited to those of high socioeconomic groups. This is also rampant in Italy, where internships of a year are common. No low income graduate ever gets these jobs, without parental support.

      On the Drum the other night, an advertising company owner, extremely highly paid, gloated how he recruits staff by a 3 month or longer unpaid internship ! What happened to graduate jobs, or apprenticeships.

      No hype
      Date and time
      March 07, 2014, 1:18PM
    • Not quite sure about teaching tho. Number of hours in the year worked dictates a very good pay. I know some will say that after hours marking and lesson planning makes up for long service leave every year, however my friend stays until 5 every day and gets it done and enjoys his 15 weeks leave per year.

      Date and time
      March 07, 2014, 2:06PM
    • No hype, while the end result is that internships would only be available from those in a higher socioeconomic group and able to pay their way (by their hand or their families) in that time, saying that its intent was to keep jobs in the plutocracy is a stretch.
      Rather, the concept of internships is just another bottom line cost cutting strategy, which successfully removes the costs previously involved in training a new employee.

      The explosion of tertiary qualifications as a minimum requirement for a job position in the last 50 years would be another one, as it effectively transfers a large amount of the costs involved of training an employee directly onto the prospective employee themselves.

      Date and time
      March 07, 2014, 3:52PM
  • I can think of a stack of jobs where women are under-represented and they won't be expected to work for free. Your gender doesn't entitle you to work in an trendy office, and it doesn't force you. You set your own bar.

    Date and time
    March 07, 2014, 9:54AM
    • I know a lot of people complain about affirmative action and quotas but what is the alternative? Equality is never driven by market forces.

      James Waite
      Date and time
      March 07, 2014, 10:13AM
      • Enforcing quotas is not ideal, but there are some sections of the privileged white male community that will continue to recruit in their own mold unless there is some type of affirmative action. If everything was equal, you would have already seeing female representation increasing markedly in the corporate world as an example. This clearly has not happened and it is not because the male candidates are better in any way (apart from the fact that the boy's club may have allowed them greater opportunities to shine and thus given them an uneven advantage). I am lucky that in my work area, I have some fantastic and competent female leaders because my company promotes a healthy dialogue around gender diversity. However, I look in the more traditionally male parts of the company, and unfortunately it looks like business as usual for the boy's club.

        Date and time
        March 07, 2014, 2:08PM
      • "Affirmative Action' is just a nice sounding euphamism for more discrimination. Just like "Positive Discrimination", it is just a feeble attempt to make something nasty sound good.

        Just as there is no such thing as positive and negative murder, there really is no such thing as positive and negative discrimination. Murder is murder. Discrimination is discrimination. You either have it or you dont.

        I am all for equality. As a society, we need to knock down all of the barriers to achieving it and that means fighting discrimination in all of its forms, including those dressed in sheeps clothing.

        Date and time
        March 07, 2014, 2:10PM
    • While I agree with what the article is saying generally, the comment:

      "A study of law firms in the US found women do, on average, four hours more per year than men"

      is neither significant nor correctly stated when you click through to the source. The source is a review of pro bono hours worked per year across the genders and also by racial background in the US. Women work 4 more hours (or about 10% more) per year than men.

      Date and time
      March 07, 2014, 10:14AM
      • Thank you for pointing that out. When I read that sentence I thought "4 hours in a year? That's probably just statistical noise." Four hours out of forty is a lot harder to explain away.

        Date and time
        March 07, 2014, 11:40AM

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