When we started Open Heroines (OH) in 2016, I was 30, junior to mid-career level, and needed a space to talk to others about the struggles of women and non-binary people in an eco-system that, while is very progressive about social change, struggled (and still struggle) with power dynamics and bias. We spoke and are still speaking of injustices of sexual conduct, voices (or lack) of women and commitments to feminism.
But if something stuck and grew with me in this journey of Open Heroines, it’s the talk about money. No matter how hard we will try to avoid it, money is power, and if we are having a feminist space, we need to talk about money. Now, when I am 36, with a family and a freelancer, I am appreciative of the OH space for helping me grow and learn about money. Here are some of the lessons I learned in the past 7 years.
Lesson 1 — Talk about money
When I worked at the Open Knowledge Foundation (that since then had changed a lot), I knew I was underpaid. I started as a freelancer on a low salary for someone who has graduated from grad school, and then put on a contract that rolled me over to the same rate (BIG mistake, see lesson 3 for why!).
Money was not the main factor in my decision to work there (even though I was deep in student debt). I wanted a place where I could learn, had travel opportunities, and total flexibility of working from home. However, as time passed, my job description changed as well and I gained more responsibilities. My pay stayed the same. I started to feel unappreciated.
At the time, OKF was in the process of developing pay bands for different roles, and I noticed that I was in the middle of the band. When I spoke to a colleague with a similar role, responsibilities and time in the organisation, he told me he earned 30% more than I did. So I decided to confront it with my line manager, who was back then the CEO. His answer — “You are not as technical as he is (even though I have worked a product manager role that was technical), and it’s not the same. Besides, you are not supposed to speak about your salaries.”
This sentence, “Do not speak to your colleagues about your salary, it’s private information,” is a neo-liberal technique to stop us from understanding our financial situation and keep us oppressed by employers. If you want to share your salary, you can, it’s your right, and I actually encourage others to do it too.
Needless to say, that started my quest for a different job, in an organisation that still does good in the world, but is open about its compensation policy. I found it, and during my work there, discussion about salaries was not a secret, it was the norm and encouraged. You can find a place like this too.
Lesson 2 — Pension? What is it?
In the UK, where I live now, enrollment into private pension schemes at work started only a decade ago, but in my home country of Israel, it started in the 90s. Still, as a 20-year-old, I didn’t even think about pension. It looked so far away. If you are in your 20s and read these lines now, learn from my mistakes. Start to put money into your pension sooner.
So when I got my pension scheme at 30, I thought how wonderful it is that I will be set for life in retirement. I could not be more wrong. I learned this the hard way the year I went on maternity leave — my salary shrunk and so was my pension contribution that year. I was now part of the pension gender gap.
If you are not familiar with it, the pension gender gap refers to the fact that women save less money than men towards retirement, even though women have a longer life expectancy than men. This is due to a number of factors, like the fact that women work part-time due to childcare or even divorce proceedings.
What you can do about it? Ask your work to save a bigger proportion of your salary to your pension (if you can afford to lose that income now, but even 1% more makes a lot of difference) and educate yourself about pensions. My partner and I agreed, for example, that he can help and contribute to my pension while I am on maternity leave to equalize the gap between us, but I know that with the cost of living crisis, this is not affordable for many women.
The bottom line though — pensions are not as boring as you think. Equip yourselves with knowledge today.
Lesson 3 — ‘Freelancer’ doesn’t mean cheaper work
In the past year, I became a full-time consultant. Scary and exciting at the same time. However, when coming to setting up a rate, I was a bit surprised at how to do so. Lucky for me, we did a Freelance Skillshare in Open Heroines before which helped me set a day rate when speaking with clients.
I learned that it’s important to say no to some offers, especially if they are lower than what you get paid if you were employed full-time. I account for costs like insurance, leave days, pension and taxes. I am always honest about why and how I decided on a day rate, and I always bill on the amount of hours I actually do.
It is scary to say no to opportunities, especially when you don’t know when your next work will come, but after doing it a couple of times, I feel better having clients that understand my value of work, than working with people who don’t and take advantage of it. Got more freelance questions or tips? Ask us in the freelance-skillshare channel on Slack.
Lesson 4 — The line between volunteering and paid participation
As I said in the beginning, when I started Open Heroines I was young with no kids or commitments and was employed. I was also lucky that the organisations I worked at gave me the opportunity to work on Open Heroines during work hours. When community members asked why we didn’t pay members, or myself, I dismissed paying myself. I have started this, so I need to put time into it. I don’t need the pay, it’s important that others will get that money. I can do this without getting paid.
7 years later, I have a toddler, a baby on the way and no employer, in addition to care work for various family dramas. Finding time for doing Open Heroines work becomes tough, if not impossible. Problem is, we have plans and ambitions we want to work on, and a commitment to the Hewlett Foundation (our wonderful funder), to deliver. So I still do days of work for OH a year, and not as many as I would like to actually deliver something out.
So for the first time in 7 years, I am getting paid for some of my OH work. To practice what I preach, here are the full details — $9600 for $75 an hour, so 128 hours. I, of course, won’t bill if I don’t reach the hours limit. I hope that with a bit more dedicated time, I can help our amazing staff build better tools for the community.
Lesson 5 — Ask questions
My last lesson is to put the ego aside and start asking questions and researching. Unfortunately, finances and money are not something we learn in school like math or English. Maybe people want us not to have the knowledge to make a change. So don’t be shy, ask questions, and empower yourself with knowledge. You can start here.