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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